By Joe Livernois
Fans of 60 Minutes will remember its iconic correspondent, Mike Wallace, as a tough guy, the interviewer in a trench coat who wasn’t afraid to ask world leaders questions that could change the course of history — or at least destroy their careers.
But Wallace was also a vulnerable and insecure man, according to Avi Belkin, an Israeli documentarian who has released Mike Wallace is Here, a 90-minute distillation of the broadcast journalist’s life. Voices of Monterey Bay is hosting the Monterey County premiere of Belkin’s film at 6 p.m. Aug. 15 at the Osio Theater in Monterey.
In a broadcast journalism career that spanned five decades, Wallace famously barged into places he wasn’t welcomed, pushing a microphone into the faces of people who didn’t want to speak and forcing uncomfortable answers from presidents, generals, celebrities and criminals. But he was a bundle of neurosis who suffered from depression and who admitted to contemplating suicide. And he was also prone to occasional journalistic pratfalls, challenges and missteps that haunted his legacy. The film, Belkin said, “doesn’t pull any punches.”
But it is evident that Belkin is a big fan.
“Mike was a great journalist,” he said during a telephone interview from New York. “And he was also a showman. Television is the medium that changed journalism. Journalism had to adapt and Mike Wallace the right man for the job.”
- Voices’ special screening event starts at 6 p.m. at the Osio Theater in Monterey with a wine-and-cheese reception, followed by the film at 7 p.m. Ticket price for the film event is $15 and includes admission to the reception. Advance tickets are only available through the Osio ticketing site here.
Before Wallace, serious journalists like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite delivered weighty news reports from the perspective of earnest gentlemen. But Wallace broke the mold. He committed serious journalism, but his reports didn’t shy away from his pugnacious techniques. In fact, his style was incorporated into most of his reports. Allowing viewers to see how he got the interviews was almost as important as the interview itself.
Over the years, Wallace broke stories ranging from the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War to steroids in baseball. His classic interviews included Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin, Richard Nixon, Johnny Carson, Bette Davis and Barbra Streisand. But he also occasionally found himself in hot water. He nearly derailed his career with his interview with U.S. Army Gen. William Westmoreland, who sued him for libel. And, early in his career, he broadcast a report about homosexuals that, in retrospect, included so many generalizations and negative stereotypes that, according to author Stephen Tropiano, it could have been produced by Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Belkin and his crew dug through more than 1,000 hours of footage and Wallace interviews, almost 17,000 pages of transcripts to piece together his film. In fact, the documentary tells Wallace’s story exclusively from the archived video and film. Belkin did no on-screen interviews for his film. In the process, the documentarian said he learned much about non-fiction storytelling from Wallace.
Most of all, Belkin said he admires the “craft of the interview” that Wallace perfected. When conducting an interview, Wallace was careful to start with the toughest question. By asking the rude and impertinent questions right off the bat, he unsettled his subjects and forced them away from the canned and disingenuous responses they were prepared to make, Belkin said.
Belkin said he didn’t expect to feature Mike Wallace when he started the project three years ago. Instead, he set off to investigate the state of journalism, a profession he believes is at risk because of its detractors, even before Donald Trump was elected president. He discovered Wallace along the way, and he believes Wallace is a steadfast example of what journalists can accomplish.
In addition to his career as a journalist, Belkin’s film presents an unwavering portrayal of Wallace’s personal life, including the death of his son and Wallace’s admission that he had tried to kill himself. His son, Peter Jon Wallace, fell from a cliff in Greece in 1962 and his body was discovered several weeks later by Mike Wallace himself. (A surviving son, Chris, is a correspondent for Fox News.)
In an earlier interview, Belkin said that he wants his film to show how a free press is imperative to democracies. “A crucial moment in the film is when Mike says ‘the first thing that totalitarians do is attack the free press.’ Audiences today don’t want journalists to confront them with uncomfortable truths or tell them something that runs against their beliefs … The pushback from the powerful against journalism is the story of the last 30 years of broadcast journalism and now we can see where it’s becoming dangerous to our democracy.
“Journalism needs to have integrity. If people don’t believe in it, its power is diminished. Hopefully, by telling the origin story of broadcast journalism, Mike Wallace is Here will remind people how we’re missing journalists who are willing to fight that by asking the right questions.”
Meanwhile, in addition to the opening of Mike Wallace is Here, Belkin’s true-crime drama about the mysterious death of a small-town bully in Missouri in the 1980s will be broadcast on Aug. 1. That story, called No One Saw a Thing, will be broadcast on Sundance TV.
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter.