DVD: Mike Wallace Is Here (2019)

November 9, 2019 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Magnolia

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  October 29, 2019

Genre:  Documentary / TV History

Synopsis: Frank portrait of pioneering investigating journalist and 60 Minutes icon Mike Wallace using a dizzying collage of rare clips, interviews, and unseen footage.

Special Features:  Deleted Scene (14:54).




The title of Avi Belkin’s highly entertaining documentary on 60 Minutes‘ most recognizable investigative journalist refers to the fear that could (and did) cascade across the face of a subject after they’ve been told the show’s blunt, persistent, no bullshit reporter was waiting outside with a camera crew for an unexpected interview.

Wallace was with 60 Minutes from its premiere episode in 1968 and remained part of the show’s core team for 40 years, retiring in 2008 after having interviewed an extraordinary variety of heads of state, artists in every discipline, mobsters, despots, religious ideologues, and everyman crusaders who risked everything to tell the truth of corruption, deception, and outrageous conduct.

Much of MWIH flows through his years as product pitchman, game show host, narrator and occasional actor before he finally nailed a steady gig as a fearless journalist. Wallace’s first attempt, Night Beat (1956-1957), died after just a year on the air, whereas the slightly longer-lived The Mike Wallace Interview (1957-60) gave him a full taste of the small screen persona he wanted to cultivate, and the quality of frank interviews he felt viewers should be seeing instead of fawning couch chats and puff pieces.

After 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt asked Wallace to join him for the fledgling news show, the already in-sync pair benefited when Watergate broke, and Wallace’s snagged frank, confrontational interviews with former contacts within the Nixon administration. His investigative pieces benefited from heavy research and questions which sometimes revealed his own peculiar fixations with a person’s income, stature, public masks, and hidden vulnerabilities.

The politics and subterfuge within Watergate certainly resonates with present day viewers familiar with Donald Trump’s daily blast of tweets and news reports of his administration’s messy state destructive behaviour maneuvering, but with the exception of a closing section on Wallace’s own struggle with depression and frank on-camera admission to longtime series colleague Morley Safer, MWIH is an otherwise brilliant editorial exercise that flows through a mass of tantalizing interviews, barely glimpsed subjects, and flashes of material set in side-by-side split-screen panels – a greatest hits montage that will undoubtedly have viewers searching for complete interviews online.

The doc is never dull – the wealth of archival footage and unseen alternate interview angles shot on film and video is extraordinary – but at 90 mins. Belkin’s jovial, nostalgic, and sometimes affecting ride feels too compacted. Perhaps the biggest challenge Belkin faced was in distilling myriad historic events in TV journalism, and noting its shift from a respected institution of truth and edification to money-making infotainment.

The question of whether Wallace is guilty of seeding the profession’s change from restrained interviewer to ‘prickish’ investigative journalist actually launches and closes the doc.

Self-confessed uber-fan and uber-prick Bill O’Reilly gets in Wallace’s face during a Q&A; the latter is no pushover, but there’s a sense Wallace is aware O’Reilly represents the worst manifestation of TV news and its star system, having built a profitable brand through a bullying persona that has no respect for any subject, and behaving like a loud-mouthed “columnist” who passes himself as the natural evolution of broadcast journalism.

There’s no sadness on his end, but perhaps what Wallace laments is the lack of the natural (and smart) dueling between interviewer and subject – the wordplay, the awkward silence, the extended reflections, and sharp quips that delighted Wallace, especially when he knew he wasn’t dealing with a pushover. The DVD’s lone deleted scene is a montage that leads up to Wallace’s piece with The Tonight Show‘s Johnny Carson, the titan of genial late night talk shows, seen puffing a cigarette, and weaving between quips and launching his own blunt self-assessments, giving Wallace a meaty response, but with a little bit of fresh blood.

After the early years in TV ,and very brief material on his childhood, family life, and sons (of whom Chris Wallace is a blunt figure on Fox news), the doc’s chapters – Watergate, the Vietnam War and General Westmoreland’s lawsuit, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, Jeffrey Wigand vs. Big Tobacco – offer the longest segments in which Wallace is seen in action; interpolated are segments in which Wallace is grilled by 60 Minutes colleagues Morely Safer and Leslie Stahl.

And for all the blunt stabs, grinning, and dizzying mass of interviews curated in this taut chronology of his epic career, the words of playwright Arthur Miller on work, social commentary, and sense of fulfillment tenderize the veteran journalist because Miller’s words come from careful reflection, heart, and intelligence.

Magnolia’s U.S.-only DVD release features an excellent transfer, but the lack of significant special features is disappointing. Pity post-festival interviews with director Belkin, producer Peggy Drexler, or son Chris Wallace weren’t conducted and / or edited into a postscript, but MWIH is mandatory for fans of TV journalism and the history of TV as a whole.



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





External References:
Editor’s Blog IMDB  — Composer Website
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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