“Mike Wallace is Here” is not inclined to let sleeping dogs lie. Directed by Avi Belkin, the new documentary follows the career of Wallace, a hard-hitting journalist — unearthing a trove of footage spanning from the 1950s to the early 2000s. Constructed almost entirely from interview clips, the film paints a vivid portrait of Wallace the reporter, but curates the impression that there was no Mike Wallace off camera.
In “Mike Wallace is Here,” Belkin’s greatest asset is his ability to put interviews from different decades in conversation with each other. The film is a phantasmagoria of clips of interviews between Wallace and giants of the 20th century: There is Wallace in the 1950s, posing questions to a cheerful, hair-netted Eleanor Roosevelt; there is Wallace in Iran, pushing Ayatollah Khomeini on American hostages; there is Wallace putting the screws to the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and Wallace in living color with a young Donald Trump. There is Wallace with an old Bette Davis, Wallace with Malcolm X, with Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Lloyd Wright, Salvador Dalí and a belligerent Bill O’Reilly.
The clips are enthralling but relentless. They are brief and segmented and focused on a singular point: not the interviewee, but the style of the interviewer, the questions he asks and the way he asks them. This is not a documentary for people hoping to watch extended conversations with ayatollahs and first ladies. Wallace’s portfolio of interviewees is just that: a portfolio, a series of documents to be quoted and arranged as a backdrop (and a foil) to Wallace’s dynamic personality.
The camera, however, also turns on Wallace. There is a series of painful interviews in which Wallace’s journalistic peers gracefully, sympathetically pry open his life and ask the same kinds of questions Wallace posed to his subjects. These reveal both Wallace’s vulnerabilities behind the camera and his complicated relationship with telling the truth in his own life.
The result is a portrait of a man who drags the truth out of others but who is resistant to letting himself be exposed in the same way. He bats away direct questions, interrogates the validity and purpose of his interviewers, refuses to answer or sinks deep inside himself when eventually truths are revealed. It is ironic that a man who lived to put other people on the spot — who, for more than half a century, typified what it meant to be an American journalist and what it meant for the American press to demand “the truth” — would be so afraid of being defined by other people’s questions.
But this revealing dimension is limited by the scope of the source material. There is footage of Wallace the interviewer and footage of Wallace the interviewee and very little in between. This binary is naturally fascinating, but it genuinely begs the question of who Wallace was off camera. We are shown Wallace at his height, triumphant and interrogative, and we are shown Wallace at his most vulnerable, haunted by family tragedy and struggles with mental health. But we are shown almost nothing in between.
This line of thought develops throughout the film into a restrained but unsettling critique of the media culture in the United States. Belkin, who is Israeli, seems to imply that there is a gray area between the media’s right to information on behalf of the people and the media’s entitlement to personal information at any cost. The documentary places Wallace on a pedestal but it also puts him under a microscope. Is his legacy of battering-ram journalism really what the United States needs? How much of it is justified in the name of objectivity and “truth,” and how much of it is spectacle, ego?
The film comes seven years after Wallace’s death, making it is impossible to get his take on the nuance of this critique. But the footage of his interviews with Trump, O’Reilly and Vladimir Putin juxtaposed with the anti-press rhetoric of the contemporary political climate adds an uncomfortable credence to what might otherwise be a subtle implication pieced together between clips.
Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].