Mike Wallace was the TV news reporter who became a household name in the US in the 60s as a correspondent with the CBS 60 Minutes programme, pioneering the tough on-camera interview. This documentary is an interesting if shapeless study of him, composed entirely of archive clips, which means his private life is opaque and also that Wallace’s off-camera ethnic slurs and questionable behaviour towards female colleagues go unmentioned.
We see him interviewing people – including a young Donald Trump – and being interviewed, often by journalists self-consciously trying to turn the tables on Wallace and give him a diluted taste of his own medicine, the most vehement being Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. Fascinatingly, Wallace began as a jack-of-all-trades announcer, acting in radio drama serials, reading out sponsor messages and hosting gameshows; he was in some ways a rather Reaganesque figure in that he transplanted his performing style into the job he eventually got. If he’d gone into acting, I can imagine Wallace, like Leslie Nielsen, using his deadpan skills for comedy.
As a newsman Wallace scored some sensational scoops, the most extraordinary being his interview with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 (a nail-biting sequence) in which he got Khomeini to attack Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in such a contemptuous way that it could only be interpreted as a call for Sadat to be overthrown and assassinated – which Sadat duly was. But Wallace clearly found a lawsuit launched at him and CBS by General William Westmoreland a very bruising experience, despite finally winning on points. He was probably hurt at the insinuation that he was only reading out questions scripted for him by the producer – like a hack actor. It was a factor in Wallace and CBS caving under pressure from big tobacco during a later anti-cigarette investigation (the film oddly does not mention Michael Mann’s 1999 movie version of this, The Insider, with Christopher Plummer as Wallace).
This film does not offer any actual conclusions, but it is an atmospheric immersion in the old, smoky and very male world of American TV journalism.
Mike Wallace Is Here is on digital platforms from 29 May.