The words “Mike Wallace Is Here,” the title of the new documentary about the legendary American Jewish journalist, struck fear in the hearts of many who confronted him on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” In a career that began with the first “60 Minutes” broadcast in 1968 and ended in 2006 at the age of 87, he was a formidable presence in American broadcast journalism.
Wallace had no formal training as a journalist, but he brought a distinct sense of style and dogged relentlessness to his work. Arguably he was as influential in his own way as those two other patron saints of CBS News, Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow.
In producing his first American documentary, Israeli writer and director Avi Belkin had the unprecedented cooperation of Wallace’s family and CBS, which opened its archives to the filmmaker.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” has been largely built out of 1,400 hours of filmed and videotaped material, which includes not only the original interviews, but the outtakes, material that was recorded but never used on the air. It’s hard to recall anyone getting such complete access at any of the three major networks.
Because Wallace was around for so long, his career resembles that of Woody Allen’s passive, fictional character Leonard Zelig, in his 1983 mock documentary “Zelig,” a character who is a participant in history-making events almost everywhere and with almost everyone.
“Mike Wallace Is Here” has gone Zelig one better in his passion and zest to get under the skin of his interview subjects. Mike Wallace was a strong-willed bulldog, the heavyweight champion of the probing question.
Here we see a young, fast-talking Donald Trump, a prickly Barbra Streisand, a slippery Richard Nixon and a sly Vladimir Putin on the hot seat. Then, in a fascinating turn-about we see Wallace grilled by his own colleagues on “60 Minutes.”
It is a literal collection of Mike Wallace’s greatest hits. It is also his greatest misses. We see him, in Belkin’s film, close up, warts and all
“He had a very tough personal life,” Belkin said. “He lost a 19-year-old son. He suffered from clinical depression and once tried to commit suicide. He felt very insecure about his journalism credentials, but all that stuff only helped to create this chip on his shoulder. He actually used that energy to propel his unbelievable career and to push it forward. And I think there’s something very inspirational about that.”
What you will not see in this documentary is any mention of Wallace’s Jewish heritage. Although his parents were both poor Jewish immigrants from Czarist Russia, that’s not what Belkin was really interested in.
“I very early on decided to focus on Mike’s career and basically about the broadcast journalism story through his career. It a story about a man that has so many important moments in his life and so much influence, you’ve got to choose how to tell his story and I chose to tell his story through his journalism.”
Still, Belkin admits the Mike Wallace story is very Jewish because of how the journalist became a star by rising above his circumstances.
To some, this Israeli filmmaker may seem an odd choice to tell the Wallace story. Belkin never met Wallace and was not even born when he was doing some of his most brilliant early work. And although Belkin is Jewish and brings that sensibility to his material, he is an Israeli Jew, very much an outsider in this story of American media and its influence.
“I think it always helps being an outsider as a filmmaker. You get a perspective that is untainted, that has no personal stake in it. I would say that Israel is in many ways the 51st state of America. I watched American culture all my childhood. I watched Mike Wallace and what the “60 Minutes” show was about. But I am an outsider in a way, and I think that’s a very powerful tool for a filmmaker.”
“Mike Wallace Is Here” opens Aug. 2 at the Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta.