Long before the era of breaking news and 24-hour rolling coverage, when Fox was just a twinkle in Rupert Murdoch’s eye and CNN had yet to unscroll its first Chiron, son of Russian Jewish immigrants Mike Wallace dominated the airwaves and the ratings.
Going behind the headlines and losing the avuncular reassurance of a Walter Cronkite or the deference of establishment journalists, Wallace was a new kind of newsman: abrasive, confrontational, or in the words of one close colleague “a bit of a prick”. Avi Belkin’s Mike Wallace Is Here harvests a vast archive of interviews and b-roll footage to create a fascinating profile of a combative, conflicted figure, who nevertheless substantially changed the face of how news was reported.
What emerges is a man with more than a few demons. Initially scarred by bad acne, he went the route of radio at first before as a young adult throwing himself into any kind of broadcasting which would get him noticed. An actor, quiz show host and frequent advertising huckster, there’s an obvious rawness to his youthful ambition which set him up to lifelong insecurity as he reinvented himself as a more authoritative voice. His first break into news came with Night Beat, a late-night interview show from New York which had Wallace puffing on endless Parliament cigarettes – the show’s sponsor – while going after his subjects with a brash forthrightness that even now feels viciously entertaining.
But it would be with the magazine show 60 Minutes that his name was made. The show consisted of in-depth investigative reporting, often making the news as much as chronicling it. Hidden camera stings, gotcha questions, and of course combative and vigorous questioning dominated the ratings and created the must-see television that would dominate water cooler conversations the next day. This is how many Americans first heard of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, or saw General Noriega of Panama and Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran suddenly twisting uncomfortably as Wallace put questions to their faces no one else dared to.
The fame would come at a terrible cost. In a series of interviews throughout the film, Wallace himself reveals his depression, his attempted suicide, the loss at the age of 19 of his son, and how he was plagued by imposter syndrome – never quite shaking off the worry that he wasn’t, properly speaking, a journalist. His adman background also haunted him as he uncovered the multiple dishonesties of the tobacco companies which he had shilled for so many years. That story would become Michael Mann’s magnificent The Insider, where Wallace would be played by Christopher Plummer. The film is a bit light on the accusations which would be launched at 60 Minutes of sexual harassment, with Wallace at the centre of them.
Frequently, it is Wallace’s interviewees which offer what turn out to be biographical glosses to Wallace’s career. Barbra Streisand and Bette Davis might be divas, but so was he. Arthur Miller’s contemplation of his own epitaph sounds uncannily like it could apply to Wallace. But surprisingly it’s Bill O’Reilly, the ‘pinhead’ bellowing journalist made blowhard, who turns Wallace’s accusation that he’s not a journalist around on him, telling him how influenced he was by Wallace, and how Wallace now is a dinosaur.
And here’s the rub. You might want the news to light up the corners where power lives – where “Democracy dies in darkness”, as the Washington Post masthead reads. But fireworks shed a fitful light and when the fight for truth becomes entertainment, many turn up for the fight rather than the truth. In this sense, Mike Wallace is still here.
Mike Wallace Is Here is released on digital platforms on 29 May. mikewallacefilm.co.uk
John Bleasdale | @drjonty