(PG-13)

3 out of 4 stars

Had this new documentary from first-time director Avi Belkin concentrated solely on the 37 years Mike Wallace worked as a correspondent for “60 Minutes,” it would been well worth the price of admission. Wallace was a link of sorts between the Murrow/Cronkite old-school and the “gotcha/ambush” style of scandalous “news” currently being practiced by dozens of mostly inferior “60 Minutes” knock-offs.

You know you’ve made a very good biographical documentary when, if the subject of the movie were to watch it, they’d either react with true, blushing modesty or cry bloody foul. That’s the only way you’ll know you did the right thing. This is one of those “cry bloody foul” types of affairs. Belkin would have angered Wallace not because he wasn’t fair but perhaps because he was a little too fair and flat-out refused to sugarcoat any of it.

Long before starting with CBS News in the mid ’60s, Wallace spent more than a quarter-century doing quiz shows, episodic radio and variety TV and eventually the acclaimed “Mike Wallace Interviews” for ABC — where he was never seen without a cigarette in his hand. Several years later Wallace was still getting paid for smoking the Parliament brand on air.

This was followed by three years co-hosting the “CBS Morning News” which was followed by “The Homosexuals” — a “CBS Reports” documentary not mentioned by Belkin for which Wallace — who later expressed regret for his participation — can extend him a post-mortem thank you.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the meat and potatoes of the movie comes with the lion’s share of time Belkin dedicates to Wallace’s career on “60 Minutes.” While most of it is stuff we’ve already seen in countless anthology episodes, it’s never been delivered with this much speed and economy without commercial interruption.

On the upside, it’s packed with the rich and famous but is surprisingly lacking in any of the nonhousehold name folks who would know they’d probably be going to jail soon whenever their secretaries buzzed them and said “Mike Wallace is here.” Just 90 seconds of snippets like these would have bumped up the overall rating a half star. It would have also lent the title a bit more irony.

Where Belkin really earns his keep is in the last half hour, when he starts delving into the man Wallace was off-camera. Almost immediately, “60 Minutes” became a huge hit and created the archetype of the news magazine format. While the bulk of the credit for “60 Minutes” needs to be lavished on creator and show runner Don Hewitt, Wallace was the face and the breakout star. This is not meant to discount original co-host Harry Reasoner and the soon-to-arrive Morley Safer, but it was Wallace’s show and he knew it — almost too well.

It didn’t take long for Wallace to morph into the proverbial 800-pound gorilla — throwing his weight around and wrangling for air time. This behavior wasn’t any different than that of future divas (male or female) who would follow in his wake, but because he was first he received the most notice, good and bad.

What wasn’t known to many at the time — and is much the revelation here — were the events in Wallace’s personal life that galvanized his gruff, virtually impenetrable exterior. A family tragedy from the early ’60s not only forever took its toll on Wallace and shaped his viper-like aggressive approach; it made him one of the most respected and unapproachable figures in the history of American journalism.

The movie hits its emotional zenith in the final act when the preeminent American reporter is interviewed by his son Chris and then Safer. Try as they might, they can never fully get Wallace to totally drop his guard or collapse in a revelatory, emotional heap. It’s not clear if he is merely refusing to lay his soul bare or if he’s actually incapable of doing so.

Or maybe Wallace had become so used to being in charge while on one side of the microphone, being on the other side was impossible to fathom. Whatever the case, Wallace remained forever tight-lipped and kept his fellow busybody news hounds at bay for the rest of his days.

(Magnolia)

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