By Liam Lacey
Contrary to the title of Avi Belkin’s documentary, Mike Wallace, in point of fact is not here. The broadcast journalist, famed for his blunt questions and charismatic irritability, died at the age of 93 in 2012, after more-than-seven-decade broadcasting career, including almost 40 years on the CBS flagship show, 60 Minutes.
Why make a documentary about Mike Wallace now? Belkin’s main purpose seems to be to present Wallace as a model of a kind of assertive independence, in contrast to the current news climate where the media is on the defensive, attacked by politicians left and right, undermined by social media and struggling to maintain audiences and advertising dollars. Wallace’s prosecutorial style and his refusal to flatter the powerful do really seem from a different era, like the blue-grey suits, trench coats, and shoe polish–black hair that were part of his uniform.
Though the film doesn’t break new ground — Wallace is the author of two memoirs as well as the subject of a biography and many interviews — Belkin’s documentary is certainly worth watching for the parade of Wallace’s interview subjects. They include General William Westmoreland, Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin, Malcolm X, Salvador Dalí, Barbra Streisand, Bette Davis, mobster Mickey Cohen, and Eleanor Roosevelt to name a few, and it’s fascinating to watch them react to Wallace’s confrontational style (Putin giggled; Khomeini walked out).
In those earlier interviews, the subjects were often bathed in clouds of cigarette smoke, supplied by the company that sponsored Wallace’s show. (“I’m Mike Wallace. The cigarettes are Parliament,” was his intro to an early program.)
Times changed. “You’re a dinosaur,” barks disgraced Fox News host Bill O’Reilly to Wallace in an archival clip. At the same time, O’Reilly insists that he is Wallace’s journalistic heir. Wallace responds to O’Reilly’s bombast with his trademark unimpressed body language — the shrug, the eye roll, the grimace — and then the verbal counterpunch, pointing out that O’Reilly doesn’t interview.
Wallace began his career not as a journalist but as a man who learned to play a journalist on TV. Raised during the Depression, Myron Wallace (he changed his name later) was the child of strict Russian-Jewish immigrants. He started his career in radio and was convinced he could never make it in television because of his acne-pocked face. But he was a success in the new medium as a news announcer, a game show host, pitchman for a variety of products and occasional dramatic actor.
In 1957, he was given the job as host of a New York show, Night Beat, where he developed his confrontational style, promoted by CBS as “the Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition.”
“I think at some point in Mike’s life, he invented a guy named Mike Wallace,” says his late colleague, Morley Safer, who died in 2016.
Night Beat spun into The Mike Wallace Interview (1957-1958) which had a dark, stark film noir look and was built around his inquisitorial journalist persona.
Belkin has also assembled lots of footage of Wallace in the other chair, as an interview subject, where he tends to play the hostile witness: “What relevance does that have?” he says to a question about his marriages. Naturally, Belkin follows it up with Wallace asking a similar question to the much-married Larry King.
Wallace’s fearlessness may have been a case of over-compensation and doubts about his job qualifications: “Who needs this pitchman for Philip Morris cigarettes?’” he recalls of his early days at CBS. “I was tainted and they were pure.”
For years, he struggled with depression and, at one point, even came close to suicide. On that subject, I met Wallace briefly in the mid-nineties, when he came to Toronto for a mental health fundraiser for setting up a fellowship in suicide studies, partly funded by the family of my late Globe and Mail colleague, Stephen Godfrey. He came across as more kindly, erudite, and humble than his hard-boiled on-air persona.
He’d had troubles, a series of marriages, and the death of his 19-year-old son, Peter, in 1962 in a hiking accident in Greece. The film includes footage of Wallace at his son’s burial. That moment, he says, marked the turning point when he decided that he would become a serious reporter and joined CBS news.
His breakthrough was 60 Minutes, which started in 1968, and where he worked until his retirement in early 2008. The show thrived during the Watergate era (though at one point, Richard Nixon wanted Wallace as his press secretary) but Wallace was at the centre of two of its biggest crises.
In 1982, General Westmoreland, who coordinated the U.S. war in Vietnam, sued Wallace and CBS for $120 million, claiming the network had set out to smear him. The case lasted three years before it was settled (CBS issued a “clarification” but not a retraction). It was during this period that Wallace’s depression was at its worst.
The documentary also covers another blow, when 60 Minutes initially suppressed a story about Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco company whistleblower portrayed by Russell Crowe in the 1999 film, The Insider. Wallace thought the movie unfairly betrayed him, insisting he fought for the story to be told.
By now, it seems widely accepted that veteran television newsmen like Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Ted Koppel and Dan Rather possessed special insights into the relationship between democracy and journalism.
“The press is the yardstick of a nation’s heath,” says Wallace in the film, a sentiment most would agree with.
But the film also reminds us that, before the internet lowered the bar, print journalists tended not to take television journalists seriously. Within Belkin’s film, there’s a televised round-table discussion from the eighties in which Wall Street Journal editor Frederick Taylor expresses a once-common criticism that 60 Minutes is: “marvelous drama and it has very little to do with journalism.”
“I cannot believe that I’m hearing this from you,” Wallace replies.
“I don’t think it’s journalism,” says Taylor. “I think it’s show business.”
Mike Wallace Is Here. Directed by Ari Belkin. Opens August 9 in at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and Vancouver’s Vancity, and throughout the summer/fall in other cities.