Film Mike Wallace is Here, directed by Israeli-trained filmmaker Avi Belkin, examines the broadcast legend.
Photos Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Rough-and-tumble journalist Mike Wallace is remembered for not holding back on any questions he thought his television viewers wanted asked — whether of political leaders, business notables or entertainment luminaries.
Wallace demanded answers and didn’t mind repeating his questions in different ways to elicit what he thought should be known.
When it came to questions asked of him, however, Wallace, a controversial presence, usually knew how to rebuff them. When asked how many wives he had, an answer was avoided.
Another question Wallace wanted to steer away from had to do with whether he had tried to commit suicide during a battle with depression. Making a denial to Barbara Walters and others, he revealed that time of desperation to personal friend and 60 Minutes colleague Morley Safer.
Wallace, so otherwise strong and compelling on air, had decided to relent during a television moment.
The personal side of the legendary broadcast journalist is included but holds only a small part of the film Mike Wallace is Here, being shown Friday-Sunday, Sept. 6-8, at the Detroit Film Theatre. The film focuses on his career and how it gained journalism momentum after beginning with commercial narration and acting.
Israeli-trained filmmaker Avi Belkin directed the documentary.
“I think there’s something about the pace of the film and the way it moves that is reflective of Mike, which is what I was trying to get,” says Belkin, 41, who began working on this production at the end of 2017 and finished at the start of 2019.
“My angle was broadcast journalism, so I wanted to show more about his career and less about his personal life.”
Belkin watched some 1,400 hours of footage before whittling that down to one-and-a-half hours of film dominated by excerpts from interviews with people who range from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Barbra Streisand, from an in-business Donald Trump to an in-government Vladimir Putin.
“When I started working on the film, I was living in Tel Aviv, and journalism was very much in debate back then,” recalls Belkin, a prizewinning filmmaker in his home country and now living in California.
“It was before Trump was elected, but it already felt that journalism was at a tipping point, and I was looking for a story I could do about broadcast journalism that would be engaging for audiences.
“I like to choose a smaller story to create a bigger story, and Mike Wallace was in all the right moments in time. I had the idea of doing a portrait of Mike and, through him, tell about broadcast journalism because of his unparalleled career, which was over 60 years.”
Doing a smaller story to convey a larger story was at the center of Belkin’s first film, Winding. It followed a river and its landscape to tell the story of Israel and won best picture at a Haifa International Film Festival.
In communicating the Mike Wallace presence, Belkin took note of the strength of Wallace’s voice even in his 80s.
“We worked with footage from all periods of time,” the filmmaker says. “Sometimes I’d have a scene with Mike at 40 next to a scene with Mike at 80, and you couldn’t tell the difference in age because his voice was consistent, and that goes to show how professional he was.”
Belkin’s professional life began as a photographer. On extensive travels after fulfilling his military obligation, he decided he had an eye for finding interesting sights and aimed his camera.
“When I was 25, I started film school in Israel,” Belkin recalls. “When I finished after five years, I started directing. I felt I then had the ability to tell a story with the right images and the right sound.
“When I was going to film school, I started scripting a film, but I met a documentary film director. I was suddenly fascinated with the documentary because I felt it could be almost anything to tell a story. I felt it was a much more free medium and got into it.”
A Vanity Fair article about Wallace, read and retained by Belkin, delved into how the broadcaster became more reflective as he aged and described how he was fascinated with people’s weak spots and very aware of his own Achilles’ heel while posing questions.
“I’m an interviewer as well because a documentary filmmaker always does interviews,” Belkin explains. “I was looking for moments that revealed Mike’s character, where it felt like he was talking to himself in a way.”
Although Belkin does not present any segment related to Wallace’s Jewish background, research left the filmmaker with the impression that there was pride in his religion. During Middle East coverage, the filmmaker says, it seemed to remain important for Wallace to include the Palestinian point of view.
Omitted from the film is part of a conversation with playwright Arthur Miller. Both men went to the University of Michigan and recalled times there.
“Learning about Mike was inspiring for my work,” says Belkin, currently represented in an AMC miniseries, No One Saw a Thing, about violence in a small Missouri town. “Watching the raw interviews, just looking at the craft, was school for me.
“Mike was all about research, relentless about getting into the core of his subject. There isn’t a moment in those hours when he’s drifting. He’s so focused and so sharp.
“The second thing I realized was about asking the follow-up questions. People talk about Mike as inventing the tough question, and he was the master of it, but also the master of the follow-up. The second question is sometimes more important than the first one.”