“Mike Wallace Is Here” covers the lengthy career of the “60 Minutes” veteran and examines both the constructive and the troublesome aspects of his confrontational, aggressive interviewing style. The documentary is weak as a character study but insightful when considering Wallace’s impact on broadcast journalism. It’s also an enjoyable 20th-century history ride.
Directed by Avi Belkin, the film, opening Firday at the Embarcadero, consists mostly of archival footage, in the form of interviews either conducted by Wallace or featuring Wallace as an interviewee.
The present-tense title refers to the enduring influence of Wallace, who died in 2012. In an opening interview, the now-disgraced Bill O’Reilly, then Fox News’ blowhard pundit, tells Wallace, who calls O’Reilly an op-ed man, not a journalist, “You’re the driving force behind my career.”
Belkin then proceeds to show how “Mike Wallace” came to be.
The Massachusetts-raised Wallace worked as an actor, an announcer and a pitchman in early television. As far back as the 1950s, in footage from the programs “Night Beat” and “The Mike Wallace Interview,” we see his now-familiar combination of solid reporting and big personality in action.
The death of his son Peter, in a 1962 mountain-climbing accident, prompted Wallace to quit making cigarette commercials and become a serious journalist. While insecure about his shortage of credentials, he landed a spot on a new CBS program inspired by Life magazine. After a rocky start, “60 Minutes” caught on.
Interview passages feature Wallace with notable figures: Ayatollah Khomeini, Bette Davis, Vladimir Putin, Barbra Streisand.
Wallace asks his trademark “tough questions” and sometimes gets eye-popping responses. Gangster Mickey Cohen declares that he has “killed no men” who “didn’t deserve killing.”
“How do you shoot babies?” Wallace asks a Vietnam War vet who participated in a notorious massacre.
Traumatic for Wallace was a libel lawsuit filed by William Westmoreland, the retired U.S. general, in regard to a Vietnam-themed program.
The film also touches on Wallace’s interview with tobacco-industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand, which the network’s corporate bosses tried to keep off the air.
While it doesn’t entirely ignore Wallace’s personal challenges — in addition to his son’s death, Wallace discusses, with colleague Morley Safer, his experiences with depression and his attempted suicide— the film offers little insight into the inner forces that drove Wallace. It isn’t much of a character portrait.
Belkin prefers to concentrate on Wallace’s career. He presents Wallace as a reporter with substance and integrity who, at the same time, operated with a problematic showiness.
The film’s depictions of the innumerable people and events Wallace covered, and of how he got some of those people to say incredible things, and of how he influenced the Bill O’Reillys of the world, are captivating.
Mike Wallace Is Here
Starring: Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Barbra Streisand, Bette Davis
Directed by: Avi Belkin
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes