Rating: (2.5 stars)
A new documentary about the late journalist Mike Wallace opens with Wallace interviewing former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. When confronted about his pugnacious on-air style, O’Reilly points out that Wallace’s question is like the pot calling the kettle black. “If you don’t like me,” O’Reilly huffs, “you’re responsible.”
That’s the big takeaway of “Mike Wallace Is Here,” a watchable if by the book retrospective of the career of the newsman most famous for his hard-hitting interviews and exposés on the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” The film closes with a montage of some of Wallace’s interviews from that show and others — clips of which are also sprinkled throughout the film — and it’s pretty impressive. The list includes such marquee names as Malcolm X, Salvador Dali, Johnny Carson, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, as well as a Ku Klux Klan official and a soldier who participated in the infamous My Lai Massacre.
“Mike Wallace” is mostly a greatest hits reel, with the subtext being this message: Wallace, who died in 2012, was instrumental in the rise of personality journalism (“personality” being a euphemism for something bordering on nastiness). In clips of a 1991 Barbra Streisand interview, for instance, the singer complains mightily about what a jerk Wallace is, but it’s hard to tell how serious she is, given the smile on her face.
Other thematic threads woven into the film include the evolution of the TV newsmagazine and the power of television to shape opinion — both of the audience and the reporter. Wallace, who covered the Vietnam War, tells us that he, like many Americans, went in a “hawk” but came out opposed to America’s involvement in that conflict. On a more troubling note, the film by Avi Belkin (which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance) suggests that Wallace’s 1979 interview with Ayatollah Khomeini contained an incitement to violence against Anwar Sadat that led directly to the assassination of the Egyptian president.
One of the most interesting episodes covered by the film is the scandal surrounding a 1996 “60 Minutes” interview with Jeffrey Wigand, a whistleblowing Big Tobacco executive, that was initially pulled from the air by CBS after Wigand’s former employer, Brown & Williamson, threatened a multibillion-dollar lawsuit. (The story was the subject of the Oscar-nominated 1999 feature film “The Insider,” starring Russell Crowe as Wigand and Christopher Plummer as Wallace.)
The report, which ultimately aired, is worth revisiting for what it reminds us about the power of newsmakers to stifle journalism — or at least try to — and how important it is for journalists to fight back. But it’s also a telling personal moment, because it opens the door to a discussion of Wallace’s struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts.
It’s the one moment in “Mike Wallace Is Here” at which we most clearly see and feel the presence of the man, and not just the fighter in front of the camera.
PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains mature thematic material, some violent images, strong language and smoking. 90 minutes.