Mike Wallace is Here (15) ***
Krabi 2562 (N/A) **
The Vast of Night (PG) ***
For British film fans unfamiliar with the history of American television news, the eponymous subject of Avi Belkin’s documentary Mike Wallace is Here is probably best known for the part he played in the big tobacco exposé dramatised by Michael Mann’s 1999 whistleblower thriller The Insider. Although dramatic license relegated the renowned investigative journalist and anchor of long-running US network news show 60 Minutes to a supporting role in that movie (Christopher Plummer played Wallace; Al Pacino and Russell Crowe took the respective leads as his producer Lowell Bergman and their source Jeffrey Wigand), Wallace’s stature and power made him a key factor in breaking the story and finally getting it on air. It’s no surprise, then, that Mann’s film is never mentioned here. This is a film that makes Wallace both hero and villain of his own story. There’s no room for anything in which he’s not a central player.
Compiled from reams of archival footage stretching back to the start of his career, the film presents a portrait of a pugnacious newsman, one who may have been riven with insecurity about his own lack of journalistic training, but who nevertheless became “the most feared interviewer in America.” He earned that reputation through hard work, extensive research and a willingness to ask questions no one else dared to, but he also capitalised on the malleability of a medium that was only just beginning to be understood. Starting out as a jack-of-all-trades radio announcer, he segued into the nascent television industry thanks to his willingness to do absolutely anything (he fronted game shows, acted and – oh the irony – worked as a “pitch man” for big tobacco). But after being hired to present a late night current affairs-style talkshow (Night Beat), he found his voice and, according to this film at least, seemed to construct a tough-as-nails media persona so absolute that it hardened him against any kind of sentimentality or feeling.
All of which adds nuance to the film’s main thesis: that Wallace’s gotcha style begat the very culture of ranting, partisan, op-ed news reporting that exists today. It’s a thesis explicitly stated by (former) Fox News star Bill O’Reilly in an interview Wallace conducted just as the channel was emerging as an influential platform for alt-right populism. Belkin bookends the film with this interview and further seeds the parallels by touching on Wallace’s own closeness to Richard Nixon and the career-fuelling bitterness he felt towards highly educated newsmen like Walter Cronkite and Edward R Murrow, whose ethics and establishment edicts he flouted when he joined them at CBS in the 1960s.
It’s a fascinating argument, one so slickly made that you almost don’t notice how frustratingly short on basic facts the film sometimes is. At no point, for instance, does it mention Wallace died in 2012, nor does it really make clear that his youngest son, Chris Wallace (seen briefly interviewing his father), is a Fox News anchor. But while such omissions could be construed as sloppy, they kind of work if viewed as a sly, formalistic conceit on Belkin’s part: by mimicking the transition into sharply edited infotainment news programming that Wallace’s career may have catalysed, he’s created a kind of meta critique of Wallace’s pervasive influence. It’s not a hit job exactly; Belkin gives Wallace a send-off worthy of his complexity by letting his subject’s interview with Arthur Miller serve as his own epitaph. And yet the film’s final shot reveals a man confronting the horrifying prospect that his life’s work has brought about the dissolution of everything he claimed to hold dear. It’s pure cinema: dramatic, ambiguous, devastating – and one more reason this particular film doesn’t need to reference a fictionalised version of its own star’s role in history.
In Krabi, 2562, British artist Ben Rivers teams up with Thai director Anocha Suwichakornpong to create a contemporary portrait of the popular tourist destination that gives the film the first half of its title (the second half, 2562, is the year it was made – 2019 in the Buddhist calendar). Essentially a film about the blurred lines between colonialism and tourism, what follows is part meditative documentary, part gallery installation, part flatly acted drama (there’s a vague plot built around the disappearance of a location scout for a film shoot). Though interesting up to a point, that point is reached early on as the filmmakers start zooming out to reveal the different layers of artifice involved in selling a cultural experience in a capitalist world, something that might have had more worth had they kept zooming out to offer a self-reflexive commentary on the ways in which such situations can be exploited by artists intent on making flimsy work from their own banal observations.
Presented as an episode of a Twilight Zone-style television show, sci-fi mystery The Vast of Night plays as a kind of period pastiche of a 1950s alien invasion movie, albeit one treated with the sincerity (and volubility) of an Aaron Sorkin film. Debut director Andrew Patterson certainly does a lot with minimal resources. With the plot tracking a late-night radio DJ (Jake Horowitz) and a switchboard operator (Sierra McCormick) as they investigate a strange frequency in their small New Mexico town, Patterson mirrors the walk-and-talk rhythms of the garrulous script with fluid camera moves that capture the eeriness of an extra-terrestrial presence without need of showy special effects. If the intrigue isn’t quite sustainable, the end result remains a promising calling card for all involved.
Mike Wallace is Here is available on demand on all major platforms; Krabi, 2562 is available to stream on MUBI; The Vast of Night is available to stream on Amazon Prime
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