Director Avi Belkin discusses his timely new Mike Wallace documentary
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Mike Wallace is Here’ film screening
When: Monday, July 22, 7 p.m.
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
How much: $20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; aspenshowtix.com
More info: The screening is part of the Eisner/Lauder New Views Documentaries and Dialogue Series, presented by the Aspen Institute Arts Program and Aspen Film. A post-screening discussion will feature Aspen Institute vice president Elliot Gerson and WYNC News investigations editor David Lewis.
The words “Mike Wallace is here” could strike fear in a subject during Wallace’s 50-year reign as television’s most famous investigative journalist.
From his perch on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Wallace subjected politicians, celebrities and other public figures to his trademark “tough questions” in a relentless pursuit of the truth.
Israeli filmmaker Avi Belkin, in his compelling new documentary, captures the intensity and flair of Wallace — both the hard-driving personality and unflinching reportorial style of the man who transformed Sunday night television for millions of viewers.
In a recent phone interview, Belkin explained that the idea for “Mike Wallace is Here” came to him three years ago (before the current president’s election). Disturbed by trends in the news industry and wondering how broadcast journalism got to such a contentious tipping point, Belkin began researching its history. He kept stumbling upon Wallace’s ubiquitous presence.
“Mike was like a Zelig or Forrest Gump character, intersecting all the right moments in the evolution of journalism,” Belkin said. “I got this idea of doing a portrait of Mike and through that portrait focusing on his career, I could tell the bigger broadcast journalism story.”
Sadly, Wallace, having died in 2012 at age 93, was no longer available to answer Belkin’s questions. Not wishing to resort to the secondhand talking-heads format of a conventional documentary, Belkin resolved on a novel approach: “To do a Mike Wallace interview with Mike Wallace.” He pitched this idea to CBS, the producers of “60 Minutes,” and they allowed him unprecedented access to their vast film and video library.
“This was the first time they had ever opened the ‘60 Minutes’ archives,” Belkin said. “I watched roughly 1,500 hours of raw materiaI.”
About two months into his archival research, Belkin came upon a Vanity Fair interview with Wallace.
“In it Mike said something that struck a nerve in me,” Belkin explained. “He said he was very much aware of his own Achilles’ heels. When he went into an interview, he framed those weaknesses of his in questions for others. I searched interviews looking for moments where Mike’s questions were revealing his subconscious … So I went back and forth between him interviewing people and being interviewed. That’s basically the spine of the film.”
As a result, the film reveals some surprisingly personal and poignant moments. No spoilers here.
Belkin’s research left him in awe of Wallace’s skill: “To see him go into an interview, how he played it out, how he choreographed the questions. That was beautiful to watch.”
Wallace’s determination and courage also impressed the filmmaker.
“Where a lot of other reporters would have backed down, Mike was never going to be stopped,” he said. “Even if it were Ayatollah Khomeini in the middle of the Iranian Revolution, he was still going to get his tough question across, and I think that’s remarkable.”
Belkin emerged from the troves of CBS and other archives with hours of footage featuring a who’s who of headline news from over half a century. The filmmaker estimates that 50% to 60% of his documentary includes never-seen-before outtakes including parts from Wallace’s interviews with Vladimir Putin, Barbra Streisand and Bill O’Reilly, among many others.
To shape his materials into the final documentary, which screens Monday in Paepcke Auditorium at the summer’s New Views series and will be released in theaters July 26, Belkin again took his cues from Wallace.
“When you’re doing a documentary, a dangerous pitfall is being boring,” he said. “Mike was a relentless ticking bomb. I wanted the film to have his energy and his rhythm so that’s how I approached the editing process. I wanted it to be very fast-paced, making sure that it feels relevant and tracks throughout like Mike.”
The director forges a complex and surprisingly timely portrait of a consummate practitioner of the art of the interview, and of the times in which he flourished.
Fittingly, for a film about a relentless truth-seeker, Belkin leaves us with a set of open questions: “Would Mike be as successful as he was today? In today’s climate is there a place for a guy like Mike? Are people really interested in the tough questions or are they just looking to be reaffirmed in their beliefs? Back in the ’70s when Mike became a star, journalism was a star. It was the time of Watergate and Vietnam. People wanted (answers). Today there’s a question mark about how much people want tough investigative journalism.”
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The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is restarting its writers-in-residence program that had been on pause during the pandemic. Residents include “Call Me By Your Name” author André Aciman. Public events begin June 15.