Susan Zirinsky, the new head of CBS News, has a lot on her plate, and she is making changes quickly. One thing she seemingly does not need to worry about — for now — is the Sunday night stalwart “60 Minutes,” still a top-10 rated primetime network broadcast series when it’s not a rerun.
The program has endured, even while gradually losing its all-star lineup. Mike Wallace, Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, commentator Andy Rooney and legendary creator Don Hewitt, have died. Steve Kroft, who inherited the Mike Wallace tough-guy role, just retired. The show continues even though it’s been tarnished by #MeToo accusations that have led to the ouster of Jeff Fager, the executive producer after Hewitt, and contributor Charlie Rose.
So the timing of a new documentary, “Mike Wallace Is Here,” may either be a perfect salve, for longtime fans, or a lesson about great journalism for younger folks. Opening Friday in limited release, it is a tough and tender look at the man whose early career took many turns (including acting, announcing and pitching Parliament cigarettes) before landing in the right place at the right time. The documentary also makes clear that Wallace felt he constantly had to prove himself as a serious journalist because of his checkered professional past.
“Mike Wallace was an extremely complicated man and a very talented journalist,” Steve Kroft says. “The doc manages to capture both without pulling punches. We see the cutthroat competitiveness, the insecurities, the charm, the bravado and the unmatched ability to get to — and through — the heart of the matter.”
The film offers clips of some of Wallace’s most memorable interviews, including with difficult and hard-to-get celebs like Johnny Carson and Barbra Streisand, and political figures such as Vladimir Putin and KKK Imperial Wizard Eldon Edwards. We also see him on the other side of the microphone, being grilled by Bill O’Reilly and Barbara Walters. Watching them go at it, you realize that interviewing is, in fact, an art. Wallace and Walters confronted, but listened. O’Reilly, not so much.
The doc also delves into Wallace’s personal life, which was riddled with tragedy and loss — most importantly the death of a son (whose body Wallace himself discovered after traveling to Greece). And we re-live the harrowing legal battle between CBS and Gen. William Westmoreland over a CBS documentary on Vietnam that Wallace narrated and reported. The yearlong case contributed to Wallace’s own personal battle with depression. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film, he tells his colleague, Morley Safer, just how close he came to ending it all.
Though it is not a key focus of the film, the Wallace-Safer relationship was hardly a love fest. “They were like two scorpions in a bottle,” says David Browning, a long-time “60 Minutes” producer, “though they did mellow in old age. When the camera was on, the mood was let bygones be bygones. When it was off, there was a good deal of needling and one-upmanship.”
Interestingly, the man who made the film is an Israeli, Avi Belkin. At a glittery screening in Manhattan, Belkin said his “otherness” may have been a benefit. “When you have someone looking at your country from another one, it has a less judgmental, more relatable viewpoint,” he said.
“What I like is that this documentary takes viewers through several shifts in the culture and important historic and social moments,” producer Peggy Drexler, who helped finance the project, said. “It discusses poignant ideas about journalism, which Mike Wallace fought for and journalists are still fighting for. These days, those who dare to ask the kinds of questions Mike asked often face repercussions. In a way, in this film, he tells their stories too.”
The documentary could surely help drive viewers to “60 Minutes” when it returns with new episodes in the fall. Boomers are the obvious audience for both the program and the doc. Some diehards believe that the current cast hardly compares with the original’s. As Kroft said, “It shows that no journalist can hold a candle to Mike.”
And yet the current team is carrying the torch — in their own way. Veteran Lesley Stahl is the closest to the Wallace style, while Scott Pelley and Bill Whitaker are revered reporters. John Dickerson comes from “CBS This Morning.” And Anderson Cooper has the star power to draw a younger audience.
So the “60 Minutes” clock is still ticking. Too bad Wallace is not around to do a tough follow-up, in his famous hidden-camera style, with one New York tycoon turned politician. Now that would definitely bring ratings.