Mike Wallace has been on television screens for generations. He’s one of those always-present icons of dignity and poise who almost seems immortal in his stature, to the point where it’s easy to assume he has no real inner life. He was simply put on this planet to be on television asking major figures hard-hitting questions.
The revelation of Mike Wallace is Here is how close to the truth this actually is. First and foremost, the film is a portrait of a man who put work above everything. His family is barely spoken of. His personal tragedies are framed as motivators as is his insecurity over the perception that he’s an entertainer more than a journalist. Even when he opens up about his depression, the view of his humanity is short-lived as the documentary quickly moves onto the next topic.
We benefit from reporters like Wallace, whatever it cost him. A separate narrative pursued by the film examines our media’s loss of his ilk. The film begins with a testy, finger-pointing interview between Wallace and Bill O’Reilly that sets the tone. Our news apparatus has become a circus. The troubling notion is that while Wallace remains a dark knight of the old guard, he may have also been instrumental in opening news media up to the sensation-chasing farce that it is today. It’s a notion not fully explored, likely because there is no true answer. Wallace’s role at the time served a need, and what followed was probably inevitable.
Still, it is interesting to watch such a private, inscrutable figure face the kind of hard questions he became famous (and feared) for. The most satisfying of these is from a modern sit down between himself and Morley Safer, but there are other past interrogations of Wallace peppered throughout. He’s just a little less open in those.
Perhaps more revealing is a technique the film uses for its archive Wallace interviews. Instead of offering the cuts seen on television, we witness both the A and B cameras side by side, allowing Wallace’s story to be told first hand in his real-time reactions to answers he receives.
Wallace gets called a lot of unkind names in the film. There is typical footage at his cursing and frustration over blown shots. But these serve to make him more relatable, which is useful because while Wallace is many things, relatable is not really one of them.
Mike Wallace is Here is a small documentary but not empty. It doesn’t strike me as the kind of doc that will inspire much box office success, but I doubt those who do see it will consider it a waste of time. Wallace is an unknowable person, and this is about as close as we’re ever going to get to him. The picture the film paints - about the man and his industry - is not a happy one, but his dedication to work and dignity in the face of that inspires all the same.