NEW YORK – Vladimir Putin, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Ku Klux Klan leader Eldon Edwards. Bette Davis, Barbra Streisand, Shirley MacLaine, Eleanor Roosevelt.
If they were famous — or infamous — they likely sat across from newsman Mike Wallace at some point during his seven-decade career. And he made ’em all squirm, as filmmaker Avi Belkin shows in his absorbing new documentary, “Mike Wallace Is Here.”
Belkin had crucial access to CBS archives, including those of “60 Minutes,” the show that made Wallace famous. And watching all this footage, the undercurrent is unspoken but obvious: How would Wallace, with his famous take-no-prisoners style, handle President Donald Trump?
Alas, Wallace died in 2012, so we must make do with a brief few moments of the newsman with Trump in his late 30s, a brash young tycoon who suggests — surprise! — that he’d be better at negotiating arms control agreements than diplomats in Washington.
“There’s a new billionaire in town — Trump’s the name,” Wallace begins. He asks the young magnate what he plans to do with the next 40 years. “There are so many things to do,” Trump says. “Politics?” asks Wallace.
“No, not politics,” Trump replies. (It’s worth noting that Wallace’s son, Chris, of the Fox News Channel, has irked Trump enough to earn a recent tweet from the president: “I like Mike Wallace better.”)
Also included are some prickly conversations between Wallace and his “60 Minutes” colleagues, as he approached retirement. One gets the sense Wallace wasn’t thrilled about having the tables turned with questions about his own life.
That’s probably why the film focuses almost exclusively on Wallace’s work, not his personal life, including his multiple marriages or his struggles with depression. It’s also why it’s shocking when he tells colleague Morley Safer what he has until then denied: that during a bout of depression, he once swallowed pills in a suicide attempt.
A quick look at Wallace’s early life begins in Brookline, Massachusetts, where as an adolescent he was so ashamed of his pockmarked face that he yearned for gray days, not sunny ones.
In his early TV years, he was a pitchman, for everything from cigarettes to shortening (“Man, that’s some apple pie.”)
In his first interview show, “Night Beat,” which premiered in 1956, he sat close to his subjects, smoke billowing from his ubiquitous cigarette. Here was launched his confrontational style: he asks Eleanor Roosevelt why people hate her and her husband.
The show moved to ABC, then was canceled in 1958. A few years later in 1962, he experienced tragedy: his older son, Peter, died in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece. Wallace resolved himself to commit to hard-edged journalism.
He arrived at CBS, where he was seen by some as an overly slick interloper. Success came, though, with “60 Minutes,” which premiered in 1968 and became an unexpected hit, launching a dynasty and a new genre, the TV newsmagazine.
One of the most compelling clips in Belkin’s film is a Wallace interview with Putin, which starts out in an almost folksy way, but soon gets uncomfortable as Wallace quizzes the Russian leader about his treatment of journalists, about corruption, about whether Russia is a democracy. You can see Putin’s eyes narrow and harden in anger.
Then there’s Wallace’s interview with Khomeini in Tehran in 1979, in which he goes beyond the expected topics — to the consternation of the official translator. He tells the Iranian leader that President Anwar Sadat of Egypt “calls you — forgive me, his words, not mine — a lunatic.” But he gets his response: a harsh criticism of Sadat.
Perhaps the most chilling moment in the film is Wallace’s famous interview with Paul Meadlo, a U.S. soldier involved in the massacre of more than 100 villagers, including children, at My Lai in Vietnam.
“How do you shoot babies?” Wallace asks.
Meadlo squirms, and talks about orders. There is, of course, no decent answer, and Meadlo said later he regretted going on TV.
Like so many of Wallace’s subjects, he didn’t quite know what he was getting into.
“Mike Wallace Is Here,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for thematic material, some violent images, language and smoking.” Running time: 94 minutes. Three stars out of four.