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July 28, 2019

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Life and interviews of veteran newsman

VLADIMIR Putin, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Ku Klux Klan leader Eldon Edwards. Bette Davis, Barbara Streisand, Shirley MacLaine, Eleanor Roosevelt.

If they were famous — or infamous — they most probably 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. 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 on Wallace’s work, not his personal life, including his multiple marriages or his struggles with depression.

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.

Perhaps the most chilling moment in the film is Wallace’s interview with Paul Meadlo, a US soldier involved in the massacre of 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.


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