Remember 60 Minutes, America’s first TV news magazine? Remember its tenacious terrier of a host, Mike Wallace? No? Okay, how about this: remember Bill O’Reilly, former Fox News superstar? Yes? Well, this documentary opens with a conversation between O’Reilly and Wallace in which the latter tries to scold the former for what he’s done to the television journalism interview — turning it into theater, into a lecture, into something decidedly other than newsgathering or investigation. But O’Reilly is utterly unfazed, and pulls the classic villain move of telling the hero “We are not so different, you and I,” noting that “Playboy magazine said that I am the most feared interviewer...since Mike Wallace.” That’s one half of the point of Avi Belkin’s documentary: the way that a guy who used to do voice work on the Green Hornet radio show helped turn TV news into show business. Into something that competed, not with other news programs for stories, but with other television shows for ratings. And he did it, at least in part, by adopting the persona of Mike Wallace: the guy who goes there, who asks the difficult, or embarrassing, or even just personal question. Who makes his subject sweat a little, lose at least an ounce of composure, and maybe even let the TV mask slip enough to give a glimpse of something real. That brings us to the film’s other, more personal, and maybe more interesting work: illustrating the story of a man through the questions he asked of others. Suffering the loss of a son, then pressing Leona Helmsley on camera about the pain of her own lost child, etc. There is one spectacular exception to these two themes, having to do with the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and it’s a pity that the movie doesn’t have its own Mike Wallace to ask the uncomfortable questions that arise from it. Still, it’s a solid piece of cultural investigation built around a man who helped write history while it happened. (2019) — Matthew Lickona
This movie is not currently in theaters.