Who was Mike Wallace? For UK audiences, it’s a fair question. Avi Belkin’s super-doc assumes some knowledge of the famed interviewer, but 60 Minutes has never been a thing outside of American shores, and despite a fabled and illustrious career, most of the reporter and journalist’s greatest hits have been obscured from the vision of those outside of the US network tv catchment.
But that’s reason enough to be enthusiastic for Mike Wallace Is Here, which offers a crash-course in Wallace’s successes and failures in the media. For once, ignorance might well be a plus, because there’s some jaw-dropping footage collected here. Wallace developed a tough, much-imitated interviewing style; it’s easy to be intimidated by your subject, and with NDA’s not yet invented, Wallace went into big interviews with none of today’s soft-soap. It’s electrifying to see him force the issue with the Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, not someone who was generally used to laser-focused and immediate interrogation. Equally, Wallace’s interviews illuminate a who’s who of important political and cultural figures, including gangster Mickey Cohen, films stars Barbara Streisand, Bette Davis and Kirk Douglas, or artists like Salvador Dali.
Some have carped about the context here, not revealing enough about Wallace or taking an argumentative through-line, but for the casual viewer, this is a riveting documentary that’s worth several views. Wallace is also a tough critic of his own work, and it’s interesting to see his distaste for Fox News (although he’s also seen on the network) and his sparring with conservative shock-jock Bill O’Reilly. Personal tragedies are discussed, although not in detail; this is less of an investigation as a celebration of one man’s willingness to crusade for truth.
The importance of an agreed truth is on the decline, not just in America but across the world at the time of writing; politicians choose what to reveal about themselves on Twitter or Facebook, and few would accept the Spartan rules of engagement by which Wallace did his best work. And yet his early Night Beat formula; live, stark lighting, cigarettes burning at all times, would still work today if anyone was prepared to take up the combative baton. If you don’t know who Mike Wallace was, there’s a lot of educational content here about the rise and fall of modern media as a trusted source. Superbly edited, and with a wealth of striking archive footage, Mike Wallace Is Here is a documentary to savour, every bit as fascinating as its tough, trenchant subject. The world is watching as American carnage rages, circa May 2020; it’s worth remembering the kind of pioneering spirit which made it great.
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