The heyday of TV journalism wields many iconic figures behind the camera. Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Barbara Walters, the list could be quite extensive. Going into Mike Wallace is Here, a new documentary covering the prolific life of the man who helped create CBS News’s 60 Minutes, it’s tempting to wonder if the subject matter would be better served with a broader take on the birth and rise of TV news.
To be fair, the underlying narrative of Mike Wallace is Here reaches beyond the personal and professional life of its subject. It explores the evolution of the political interview revolutionized by Wallace, who became famous (and feared) for his tough, rigorous questions and risky, sometimes antagonistic reporting. And we also see how this style of aggressive journalism would go on to become a staple of modern cable news, specifically Fox News, though the documentary never explicitly points out that his son Chris Wallace now works for the network (he only gets a brief mention and appearance in the film, to be clear).
The advent of media journalism is a biting, relevant idea for a documentary in 2019, despite being made up almost entirely of archival footage pieced together without talking heads. This alone makes the doc a good recommend for anyone interested in a more historical, no-nonsense approach to how far media journalism has come (or fallen) in the last few decades. But director Avi Belkin (Winding) also injects the film with a wonder-work of ingenious filmmaking techniques to keep the onslaught of insights engaging and memorable.
This is a documentary that mainly features dozens of interviews spliced together and edited consequentially (not chronologically), which would be hard to follow if not for how Belkin wisely frames these conversations as split screen. We can see Wallace and his interviewees (sometimes interviewers) at the same time, but close up. These dynamic shots keep us squared in on their faces without having to resort to a flat long shot that would keep both individuals in view.
Belkin also plays with split screen when stacking scenes and footage up against Wallace’s pondering stare, as if to give the impression of the man talking to himself or reflecting on his past career. It almost never rings as gimmicky or weightless because Belkin has tapped into the anxieties and frustrations of a man both obsessed and nonchalant about his legacy. The paradox of Mike Wallace is, at times, the story. And it’s never a boring one.
It’s a revealing investigation into a man well-known for the craft, and some of the film’s final third deals with his darkest demons without breezing past this difficult subject matter or perhaps overdoing the sadness. You can imagine Wallace being at least somewhat pleased with how this doc deals with his life as a whole, which is no small feat considering his tendency to see through pandering schmaltz and get to the heart of the matter.
All that said, it’s somewhat exhausting to spend 94 minutes jumping forward and backward and sideways with non-sequitur interviews, in the sense that we rarely get a chance to slow down with a particular back-and-forth. The film doesn’t hold your hand with names, dates, and other context, so there’s an accessibility issue for anyone jumping into these time periods a bit blind, but again, it also doesn’t go too deep to offer much new material to the already politically obsessed. It’s worth the effort to go back and research whatever you may have missed, but this is certainly a drawback for what is otherwise a wholly brilliant documentary in both style and function.