‘Mike Wallace is Here’ dissects legacy of television journalism pioneer

Consisting entirely of archival footage, the film is a unique achievement in the biographical documentary genre.

Documentaries are more popular than ever, with films like “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” becoming critical and box-office hits in the previous year alone. However, there’s a cost that comes with this popularity. In an age where so many biographical documentaries affirm the greatness of their already publicly beloved subjects without doing much else, it can be easy to liken certain films in the genre to a cinematic Wikipedia article.

But “Mike Wallace is Here,” which screened Friday, March 1 at True/False Film Fest, isn’t so much about reliving the achievements of the CBS journalist, but rather about witnessing the way they’re presented. Just as Wallace’s confrontational, hard-hitting style of interviewing drew viewers to “60 Minutes,” the film’s distinctive editing style allows it to ask the difficult questions about the legacy of a journalistic giant.

What better way to approach such a towering figure than by letting him speak for himself? Rather than let a series of talking heads attest to Wallace’s greatness, director Avi Belkin’s film consists entirely of archival footage of Wallace and manages to tell his life story through that alone. Even when the film occasionally stumbles into the clichés of documentaries about public figures by making its subject appear larger than life, its technical prowess is still an impressive feat to marvel at.

“Mike Wallace is Here” covers all the major events of Wallace’s life — the Westmoreland v. CBS lawsuit, his Watergate interviews and the Jeffrey Wigand scandal famously dramatized in “The Insider” — but does so in a wholly unique way that doesn’t gloss things over. The film reckons with the contradictions Wallace’s methods employed — in one interview, he refuses to answer a question on account of its “lousiness,” but then we are shown an interview where Wallace himself asks a virtually identical question.

The film opens with an interview between Wallace and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. In the interview, O’Reilly compares himself to Wallace. Wallace rejects this comparison, establishing the difference between an interview and a lecture, what Wallace believes O’Reilly does. Rather than cut to footage of O’Reilly’s style of interviewing and comparing the two, the film cuts to a split screen, showing what Wallace is talking about on one screen, as their interview continues on the other. The film employs this method in increasingly creative ways throughout.

Prior to the screening, architecture blogger Kate Wagner briefly spoke as part of True/False’s Synapses program, which invites various minds “to jump on a soapbox for pre-film rants.” Wagner spoke of how HGTV has changed the way people think about home ownership and how their uniform style has led to the commodification of the household, with viewers treating the house as an object instead of a home. Surprisingly, Wagner’s talk tied in nicely with some of the themes of “Mike Wallace is Here,” namely the detrimental effect that corporations and societal norms can have on good journalism, or, in Wagner’s case, interior design.

“Mike Wallace is Here” is proof that a documentary can recount events its audience is already familiar with and remain riveting. What could’ve been an ordinary biography is brought to life through the innovative editing and unbelievably creative approach that Belkin took. Not only is it consistently engaging, but it’s surprisingly poignant as well in its unsentimental reminder about the power and impact that honest journalism can have.

Edited by Janae McKenzie | jmckenzie@themaneater.com

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