Mike Wallace is Here (review)

People used to fear those words. If Mike Wallace and his camera crew were there to see you, you were in trouble.

Interesting that the film begins with a Wallace interview where Bill O’Reilly says there he wouldn’t exist without Mike Wallace. That’s sobering. But it’s not untrue.

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Wallace interviewing Eldon Edwards, Grand Wizard of the KKK

Wallace was a pioneer in his time, tough questions, direct to the point of browbeating and nothing off limits.

There’s little doubt in my mind Wallace helped to usher in the current style of presentation on cable television and internet sites that pretend to be news, but serve up sensationalism and combative editorializing.  The difference is that Wallace seemed to care about facts and had a functioning moral compass. He was still very arrogant and would still carve you up in a heartbeat.

Wallace wasn’t the first news “star” on television. He had a swagger like no one else.  Wallace started out with an interview show called Night Beat. It was too controversial and was canceled. He then earned a living as a pitchman, hawking any product that would pay him. CBS came calling but he was unlike the news staff, not really fitting in.

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The debut of 60 Minutes: Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace

In the film he said he had to prove himself. That’s where he met producer Don Hewitt, himself an outcast. Hewitt came up with the 60 Minutes idea and put Wallace and Harry Reasoner on the show. It took several years before they began to figure out the strength of the magazine format. Then Watergate happened and Wallace and 60 Minutes found their groove.

In the years that followed, Wallace used his surprise style of interviewing, busting in on illegal activities or confronting grifters. Later, just the words, “Mike Wallace is Here” made for good entertainment.

The film covers some of Wallace’s most notable interviews, including the one with Gen. William Westmoreland, which was part of a documentary by CBS, which reported that Westmoreland manipulated enemy troop strength in Vietnam.  Westmoreland ended up suing Wallace and CBS over the story.

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Wallace was the only American to interview the Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran (above) after the embassy was ceased. Wallace worked on a story about big tobacco, interviewing Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist for Brown & Williamson. The story didn’t air, CBS got cold feet, fearing a lawsuit, until The Wall Street Journal wrote a story that and CBS aired a version of their original story. This made Wallace uneasy, he felt that his network, and Hewitt, caved to the perception of a lawsuit. Wallace also interviewed Putin, and correctly noted that Putin spoke very good English but was using a translator somewhat dishonestly. Wallace called him on it.

In much of the film, Wallace is confronted by interviewees and others about being difficult and even disliked.  Wallace didn’t seem to like being interviewed or his persona discussed. It clearly made him uncomfortable and I wondered if Wallace was aware the his interview manner and his persona were perceived as one.

Only in a couple of instances you are allowed to see the personal Wallace. He talks about his childhood briefly and how his feelings about his looks drove him toward a career in radio. The film looks at Wallace’s search for his missing son in Greece, where he was found dead, but you don’t learn how that loss really effected him. Wallace does let down the veil on his long battle with depression and that he once tried to kill himself. For me, those instances are important in understanding Wallace, the film failed to pursue this.

The film includes a small clip of a FoxNews interview Wallace did with his son Chris. Nothing else is said about his family life other than Wallace admits to being an absentee father. Wallace is asked how many marriages he has had but he doesn’t answer the question. There are only two references to his wives. Work was his priority, he admitted that, you learn very little else about his personal life.

Wallace was a very charismatic person. One second he was blistering someone with questions or making a very serious on-camera point, then suddenly break into a captivating smile. Wallace could turn on the charm like a light. Again, the film did not look at the complexity of this personality. He was feared and respected at the same time.

Wallace was there at the beginning of television as a news vehicle.  Wallace would become as famous as the stories he covered.

Did I like the film? Yes, overall it pulled you inside Wallace’s world. It was a lot of ground to cover, Wallace worked until late in life. The most telling interview was the one Wallace did with his news colleague Morley Safer. Wallace let his guard down, it was more a conversation between old gladiators, reflecting on battles and adventures.

I grew up on 60 Minutes, as many of us did, so I saw a lot of Wallace through the years. Did Wallace’s game change much over the years? I believe so. Wallace’s style became known to the subjects of his interviews. They tried to defense him, if you could do that. Sometimes they fought back, like O’Reilly did. Wallace, like an old pitcher who lost speed in his fastball, got craftier and dug deeper into his questions.

Many have adapted Wallace’s style and bravado, or have tried. Wallace was skillful, like a surgeon, his questions were shape and well-placed. There wasn’t a meanness in his manner, but he could be harsh to unscrupulous people. Today, many who try using similar tactics are just nasty and are more interested in the spotlight, rather than what’s right. Interesting that at the end of his film is a clip of Trump at a rally calling out the fake media there to cover him. My, how things have changed.


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