erik lundegaard

Wednesday December 11, 2019

Movie Review: Mike Wallace Is Here (2019)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The opening really pissed me off. I think it’s supposed to.

It’s 2004, and Mike Wallace—about 86 years old, two years from retirement—is interviewing a smug, top-of-his-game Bill O’Reilly. It’s Bill before the fall. Mike wonders why Fox News is increasingly popular and O’Reilly says it’s because they give people “straight talk.” Mike then shows footage of O’Reilly berating and insulting people on his show, telling them to shut up, etc. “That’s not an interview,” he says. “That’s a lecture.”

Mike: You say you’re a journalist.
O’Reilly: That’s right.
Mike: I say you’re an Op-Ed columnist, which is different.
O’Reilly: No, it’s not. You’re a dinosaur. You have to engage now. You have to challenge. You have to be so provocative. This is going to embarrass you, Wallace ... Playboy magazine wrote that Bill O’Reilly is the most feared interviewer since Mike Wallace. You’re the driving force behind my career, and I always tell everybody, “You got a problem with me? He’s responsible. If you don’t like me, go to Wallace.”

First, an Op-Ed columnist is not a journalist. Anyone can do an Op-Ed column: I have. All it takes is an opinion and a modicum of writing ability. True journalism—working a beat, working sources—is a profession. You have to be objective. You have to tell both sides of the story—often to a fault. The mere fact that O’Reilly says a journalist and an Op-Ed columnist are the same proves what a journalist he isn’t.

As for O’Reilly being Wallace 2.0? Give me a fucking break. O’Reilly was and remains a wholly political animal. I don’t know even where Mike Wallace stood politically. According to this doc, he almost became Nixon’s press secretary. That astonished me. He was also good friends with the Reagans. Yes, like O’Reilly, he thrived on being provocative and asking tough questions, but the goal was to extract information; it wasn’t to browbeat or get people to shut up. Just think about that. You’re interviewing someone and you tell them to shut up? To not give you information? O’Reilly’s shtick was to invite someone on with whom he disagreed politically and win. That remains the Fox News shtick. They’re like a little Hollywood studio: older craggy heroes, younger leggy blondes, villains, victory.

But we don’t hear any such objections here. Mike seems at a loss for words, O’Reilly seems triumphant, while the doc, produced and directed by Avi Belkin, holds on the moment and says nothing. Maybe the rest of it is some kind of answer.

Myron
Mike Wallace started out as a kid named Myron with bad acne who went on the radio because even in his twenties he thought of himself as a kid named Myron with bad acne.

He worked on his voice. Radio was the dominant form, TV the opportunity. He did it all: news, commercials, game shows. In the radio drama, “The Crime Files of Flamond” (1946-48), he played Flamond. He pitched Golden Fluffo shortening.

He didn’t start out as a journalist. Maybe that’s why he tried so hard. He was always trying to prove himself. He played reporters: in an episode of “You Are There” (“The Conquest of Mexico”); in the film “A Face in the Crowd.” Neither is mentioned here.

In the early days, we see him with an ever-present cigarette—which led to a regular gig as pitchman for Parliament cigarettes—but I assume the cigarette was emulating Edward R. Murrow. I assume he wanted to be Edward R. Murrow, who was the dominant newsman of the day. But Murrow only comes up here ... once? Is that right? As an example of the puff-piece interviewing style of the day that Mike Wallace, first with “Night Beat” (1955-57) and then “The Mike Wallace Interview” (1958-59), cut through? Really? Puff piece? It’s like “See It Now” never existed.

If you’d asked me what a documentary on Mike Wallace might contain besides “60 Minutes,” I would’ve said:

  1. The Hate that Hate Produced”: a 1959 CBS report on the Nation of Islam
  2. The Westmoreland debacle
  3. “The Insider”

They don’t mention 1) at all. We get tons on 2). As for 3), we get the original “60 Minutes” report on Jeffrey Wigand/Brown & Williamson but nothing on Michael Mann’s Oscar-nominated movie—one of the best movies of the past 20 years—in which Mike Wallace doesn’t come off well.

The big reveal for me was how, when he went to CBS News in the 1960s, he was dismissed as an entertainer; he was not taken seriously by other reporters. But Don Hewitt took him seriously. “60 Minutes” was initially conceived as black hat/white hat reporting—Wallace was black, Harry Reasoner was white. (The doc doesn’t mention this.) For years, it floundered at the bottom of the ratings. What goosed it up until it became the most popular show on television? According to Belkin, Watergate. Everyone was tuning in, and because Mike had covered the Nixon campaign he knew most of the players and got access to them. We see a great interview with a perpetually sweating John Erlichman.

How true is that, though, that Watergate was the ratings breakthrough? “60 Minutes” doesn’t appear among the top 30 Nielsen shows until the 1976-77 season, several years after Watergate, when it’s tied for 18th with “Hawaii Five-O.” Then:

SEASON RATING RANK
1976-77 21.9 18
1977-78 24.4 4
1978-79 25.5 6
1979-80 28.4 1
1980-81 27.0 3
1981-82 27.7 2
1982-83 25.5 1
1983-84 24.2 2

Why the 1979-80 season? Iranian hostage crisis? Either way, it remained in the Top 10 throughout the ’80s and was No. 1 again from 1991 to 1994. It’s still regularly in the top 20—an astonishing run—even if its ratings (as with all top network shows) is a fraction of what they used to be.

Why not talk about the cultural impact of the show? The proliferation of news-magazine shows, none of which were ever as good as “60 Minutes.” The parodies and satires and homages—particularly the brilliant 1984 SNL parody about the dangers of knockoff Chinese novelty-gag items, in which Harry Shearer, doing a brilliant Mike Wallace, confronts the corrupt, sweating, smoking attorney Nathan Thurm (Martin Short). Back then, if you were a shady business, it was a toss-up who you didn't want knocking on your door: the FBI or “60 Minutes.”

Who’s Who
What Belkin does really well? Telling Mike’s story through the responses he gets from the people he interviews.

So in the ’80s he interviews Barbra Streisand, who says “Fear is the energy behind doing your best work,” and it might have been true for him. So in the ’50s he interviews “Twilight Zone” producer Rod Serling, who admits spending all the time he does on his show, 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week, means giving “fewer hours to family,” and so it was for Mike, who was mostly an absentee father. So in the’80s he interviews “Queen of Mean” hotelier Leona Helmsley, who cries when he asks about the son she lost, and it leads to a section on the death of Mike’s son, Peter, age 19, while mountain climbing in Greece in 1962.

He interviewed everybody. The list is a Who’s Who of the second half of the 20th century, along with some legends from the first half (Eleanor Roosevelt, Bette Davis, Mickey Cohen), and some from the first half of this century (Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin). He did all the major events of the second half of the 20th century: JFK assassination, My Lai massacre, Watergate, Iran hostage crisis. Back in the ’50s, he gave us a warning for our time: “Take a look at the history of any nation which has lost its freedoms, and you’ll find that the men who grabbed the power also had to crush the free press.”

I’m curious how much research went into this doc. A lot of the interviews were part of the 2012 tribute “60 Minutes” did upon Mike's passing. Maybe too many? It's like you could just watch that instead.

I miss that we don’t have him around. Is that the point of the title? Mike Wallace is no longer here, and the charlatans are proliferating and getting more powerful. And when they need a safe place to spread their lies, they go on Bill O‘Reilly’s Fox News. Where no one is telling them to shut up.

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Posted at 07:50 AM on Wednesday December 11, 2019 in category Movie Reviews - 2019  
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