In Theaters

What is truth? That’s a question scholars, philosophers and theologians have wrestled with for eons. But, after all these many centuries, it still lingers, nibbled at by many deep thinkers though never satisfactorily answered. Perhaps that’s because it can’t be adequately nailed down, be it due to an undefinable or transitory nature, a plethora of conflicting opinions, or some other inscrutable quality. For what it’s worth, however, the quest continues, this time on the stage of a highly charged contemporary drama as seen in the gripping new release, “Luce” (web site, trailer).

If ever there were a textbook example of an “honor student,” Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) would be it. The Eritrean-born onetime-child soldier whose first name means “light” was adopted by his upper middle class parents, Amy (Naomi Watts), a pediatrician, and Peter (Tim Roth), a financier. With no children of their own, Amy and Peter wanted to use their considerable resources to give a fighting chance to someone who might not otherwise get one. Together they put everything they had into raising the African orphan, who has grown up to be a stellar high school senior, expert debater, star track athlete and fiercely loyal friend.

Honor student and star athlete Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr., center) is seen as a remarkable young man by his mother, Amy (Naomi Watts, right), despite some serious skepticism by history teacher, Harriett Wilson (Octavia Spencer, left), in the taut new psychological thriller, “Luce.” Photo courtesy of Neon.

With a pedigree like that, Luce seems well on his way to a bright future, one aptly befitting of his name. But one day, quite unexpectedly, a bombshell goes off. Amy is called to Luce’s school to confer with his history teacher, Harriett Wilson (Octavia Spencer), who shares some troubling news. Miss Wilson is concerned about Luce’s work on a classroom essay assignment in which he and his fellow students were tasked with writing a paper in the first-person voice of a historic figure. For his composition, Luce chose to pen a manifesto by Frantz Fanon, a radical Black revolutionary who advocated violence as the only means to achieve political reform. The incendiary paper was filled with disturbing, inflammatory rhetoric, so much so that it shocked the project’s assignor. And, to see if there was more to this than just his provocative prose, Miss Wilson had Luce’s locker searched, an investigation that uncovered the presence of illegal fireworks, an amount capable of setting off a sizable explosion.

Needless to say, Amy can’t believe what she’s hearing. Given her son’s impeccable reputation, how could he possibly be caught up in something like this? She’s upset about the invasion of her son’s privacy, and she seriously doubts Miss Wilson’s accusations, citing the nature of the assignment to explain its content. She leaves the conference highly skeptical. However, just in case there might be something to the teacher’s claims, she decides to get to the bottom of things with her son but without directly confronting Luce with the alleged evidence. She refuses to level the same unsubstantiated charges against him without fully getting his side of the story.

Proud parents Peter and Amy Edgar (Tim Roth, left, and Naomi Watts, right) wrestle with some disturbing news about their adopted honor student son in director Julius Onah’s gripping new psychological thriller, “Luce.” Photo courtesy of Neon.

In questioning Luce, however, Amy finds her son to be somewhat evasive. He admits his relationship with Miss Wilson is frequently strained, given that she often seems to have it in for him. He notes that she’s highly judgmental with limited views of what she considers acceptable behavior, particularly for minority students, such as Luce’s classmates DeShaun Meeks (Astro) and Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang). And that’s ironic, given that Miss Wilson comes from a minority background herself. That aside, though, the lack of definitive answers leaves Amy with doubts, something she didn’t expect to happen. Yet, considering her love for her son and the implicit trust she has long placed in him, she tends to give him the benefit of the doubt, even though she can’t ignore the onset of vacillation that seems to be creeping into her feelings.

To say more would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that matters grow progressively more complicated when a variety of other issues arise. An incident with Miss Wilson’s drug-addicted sister, Rosemary (Marsha Stephanie Blake), an internal investigation led by the school’s principal, Dan Towson (Norbert Leo Butz), a home break-in, accusations of possible sexual assault, and an incident involving the aforementioned fireworks take the situation to whole new level. And, with so much on the line, none of these events brings anyone closer to the truth – if there even is such a thing as a solitary truth.

Yet getting to the truth is what most everyone wants, no matter how elusive it might be. But, if that’s truly the case, why is it so hard to pin down? That’s because truth is often relative, based more on perceptions, perspectives and beliefs and less on objective criteria that go unquestioned. That lack of absolute certainty probably makes many of us quietly uncomfortable, but perceptions, perspectives and beliefs are by their nature variable from one person to another. And, given the role they play in our outlooks, they play a significant role in shaping what we see as the truth.

Asian-American high schooler Stephanie Kim (Andrea Bang, center) is upset that her history teacher holds her to a different standard of accountability compared to non-minority students as seen in the stunning new drama, “Luce.” Photo courtesy of Neon.

When those principles are applied to the scenario at work in this film, it’s easy to see how multiple versions of “the truth” emerge. The view each character holds about Luce determines how they each see him. And this doesn’t even take into account the perspective he holds about himself. What’s more, as new revelations continually arise, the sands underlying these perceptions tend to shift, making apparent that “the truth” can readily change over time with changing circumstances.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that things seldom arise as all or nothing scenarios. The proverbial “black and white” situations tend not to emerge as readily as we think they do; those murky in-between shades of gray are often more prevalent, and it’s those hues that we should look at most closely. Yet, for what it’s worth, that’s not the case in this story. As Luce himself pleadingly protests when the heat gets turned up, “I only get to be a saint or a monster.” Is he either of those, an upstanding citizen or a sociopath? Or is he more accurately characterized as something in between?

This is an important point to bear in mind in today’s culture. Given the polarization seen in contemporary society, it might be easy to fall prey to beliefs that occupy opposite ends of the spectrum. That’s particularly true when it comes to an issue like race, a question that comes front and center in this story. Is it fair, for example, for Miss Wilson to hold minority students to a higher standard of accountability? Is she purposely being hard on them to help prepare them for the challenges they’re likely to face in an often-unfair and imperfect world? Or could it be that she’s projecting personal resentment onto them based on the experiences she underwent as she was attempting to stake her place in the world? The answers to these questions aren’t easy, but they’re almost assuredly based on the underlying beliefs on which they rest.

Is he a saint or a sociopath? That’s one of many thorny questions viewers must ask themselves when it comes to high school honor student Luce Edgar (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) as seen in the gripping new drama, “Luce.” Photo courtesy of Neon.

This riveting psychological thriller is filled with endless twists and turns that leave audiences guessing right up until the very end. What’s more important, though, is that the film forces us to face some thorny questions about race, redemption, privacy, trust, perception and prejudice, all the while showing us that things may not be as simple or clear cut as they seem. The picture’s superb script by playwright J.C. Lee and director Julius Onah, its fine film editing, and its excellent ensemble cast (most notably Spencer, Watts and Harrison) make for one of the best offerings of 2019, a release that sincerely deserves serious consideration come awards season. It already earned a Grand Jury Prize nomination in the dramatic category at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

No matter how earnestly we search, truth may be something that ever eludes us. The answers we come up with may be incomplete, unsatisfactory or even totally off-base. As this story illustrates, the quest may even leave us with more questions than we had at the outset of our inquiries. The important thing, though, is that we never stop searching, for we grow with each step we take along the way, and there’s no telling where that may end up taking us.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

One Man’s Search To Find His Calling

Finding one’s calling in life is often challenging enough, but, in an emerging industry or profession, it can be that much more difficult. Pioneers in such endeavors frequently require some time to find their footing and their voice, generally going through a process of trial and error to find the right fit. Some won’t succeed and will move on to different ventures, but others are fortunate enough to come up with the right mix that suits their needs and those who they serve. So it was for an aspiring newsman in the early days of television, a journalist who went on to become a legend in his own time, a story told in the engaging new documentary, “Mike Wallace Is Here” (web site, trailer).

Virtually anyone who watched television in the last few decades of the 20th Century knows the name Mike Wallace (1918-2012). The intrepid, no-nonsense, hard-hitting interviewer of everyone from celebrities to kings made quite a name for himself at CBS News, primarily through his work on the groundbreaking news magazine 60 Minutes. But such success was far from instantaneous.

As the documentary shows, Wallace took some time to find his voice. In the early days of TV, he recalls, those who worked in the field did a little bit of everything, from newscasts to talk shows to commercials to hosting or participating as panelists on game shows. Given this diverse range of job requirements and responsibilities, TV professionals of the time often had to grope their way through the flotsam to discover what best suited them. And, for Wallace, commercials and game shows didn’t cut it.

Beginning with the live late night interview show Night Beat in the 1950s, legendary broadcaster Mike Wallace developed his talent for asking probing questions, as seen in the engaging new documentary, “Mike Wallace Is Here.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Wallace got his first glimpse of what he wanted to do in 1956, when he was tapped to host a live late night interview show called Night Beat (later renamed The Mike Wallace Interview). Through this largely one-on-one interview format, Wallace had conversations with a wide range of luminaries in politics, activism, entertainment and the arts. It gave him a chance to interview some of the living icons of his time, such as architect Frank Lloyd Wright, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, abstract artist Salvador Dali and Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling. But it also was here that he cut his teeth on asking probing questions, as seen, for example, in an often-tense conversation with Ku Klux Klan leader Eldon Edwards.

Despite his emergence as a skilled interviewer, Wallace’s career came to an abrupt halt in 1962, when his son Peter was killed in a mountain-climbing accident in Greece. In the wake of this incident, and with his interview show having completed its run, Wallace went through an intense period of introspection. Having come to the realization that life is not guaranteed, Wallace realized that he wanted to take charge of his life and career, focusing his attention on what he really wanted to do most, the kind of penetrating interviews at which he had become proficient.

Wallace joined the staff of CBS News, a somewhat daunting move for him in light of the network’s long-standing reputation for scrupulous journalistic excellence. Wallace found it intimidating given his lack of formal training and suddenly finding himself working alongside such broadcasting legends as Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. Seeing himself as something of an outsider who needed to prove himself, Wallace worked diligently to establish himself as a credible reporter, one worthy of being part of the ranks at CBS.

Journalist Mike Wallace (left) interviews Ku Klux Klan leader Eldon Edwards (right) during an episode of the pioneering late night interview show Night Beat, as seen in director Avi Belkin’s new documentary, “Mike Wallace Is Here.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Wallace’s career-changing break came in 1968, when he teamed up with producer Don Hewitt and fellow correspondent Harry Reasoner to create 60 Minutes, an experimental television news magazine. The format and content were unlike anything else on the air, and even the trio of creators had no clear idea of what they wanted the show to be in its early days. They tried doing many different kinds of stories, approaches that were seen as inventive and revolutionary. But, despite such critical acclaim, the series was a ratings flop, nearly always coming at the bottom of the list of network shows and constantly on the verge of cancellation.

Fortunes turned around in the wake of the Watergate break-in. Having covered Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign, Wallace knew all of the principals in the White House – and who were caught up in the scandal. Such access enabled 60 Minutes to do a number of stories related to the incident, such as a telling interview with White House counsel John Ehrlichman, all of which helped give the show a huge bump in ratings. At last the program had found its legs and was now ready to run.

In the ensuing years, Wallace and fellow hosts Dan Rather and Morley Safer helped cement the show’s reputation as a television staple, eventually becoming the top-rated series on the air, quite a coup for a news-based program. In addition to its political stories, 60 Minutes conducted investigative reporting segments, insightful pieces about science and technology, probing interviews with world leaders like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Supreme Iranian Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and celebrity interviews with the likes of Johnny Carson, Barbra Streisand, Bette Davis, Oprah Winfrey and Shirley MacLaine. Wallace even conducted an interview with an up-and-coming real estate developer named Donald Trump who, ironically enough, claimed to have no interest in politics.

Through his work, Wallace became synonymous with hard-hitting journalism. In fact, many of those who followed in his footsteps claimed that he served as their model for this style of reporting, an observation offered, for example, by former Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly during an interview, ironically enough, conducted by Wallace himself.

During a classic 60 Minutes segment, journalist Mike Wallace (right) interviews an up-and-coming brash new real estate developer named Donald Trump (left), as seen in the engaging new documentary “Mike Wallace Is Here.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

But, while Wallace was largely credited with turning the journalistic exposé into an art form, he was also criticized for a certain degree of sensationalism. While he didn’t succumb to the bombastic style of many of those who followed him, he was nevertheless censured by some who claimed that he frequently exhibited qualities more readily associated with showmanship than with journalistic objectivity. The jury is still out on that one, but this criticism came up more than once and has managed to modestly but persistently cling to his legacy.

It’s interesting to note that, when the tables were turned on Wallace, he was not as candid with those who interviewed him as his subjects often were with him. In interviews with colleagues Barbara Walters and Morley Safer, for example, Wallace frequently holds back, answering questions with questions or deflecting the inquiries asked of him. For instance, in clips from such conversations, he’s reluctant to speak about subjects like his lifelong battle with depression and the death of his son. But, when it comes to talking about his vocation, he freely acknowledges his belief in the importance of work and that we should all make the effort to do the same, regardless of what we do, because that’s what really counts in the end.

All of which brings us back to the opening paragraph of this review – the importance of finding our calling and following through on it. But, if this is something at which we have no practice, how do we determine what our calling is and to bring it into being in our lives? That’s where the impact of
our thoughts, beliefs and intents come into play. It’s hard to say if Wallace ever employed these intangible principles, and, given his penchants for thoroughly scrutinizing tangible facts and maintaining a high degree of skepticism, it’s likely he probably would have readily dismissed the ideas out of hand. Nevertheless, that doesn’t change the fact that his life experience eloquently reflects his mastery of these principles – and in grand fashion.

Wallace’s belief in his abilities, once he determined what he wanted to do, was formidable. Even though he occasionally wrestled with concerns over whether he’d measure up compared to his pedigreed peers, he nevertheless developed a tremendous awareness of, and faith in, his interviewing and investigating skills. He proceeded fearlessly in approaching his stories, and he developed an impressive reputation for getting at the truth, particularly with his “gotcha” style of questioning. Those whose misdeeds were in need of being exposed often felt utterly vulnerable, but, for those who were harmed by such wrongdoings, his journalistic heroics were widely applauded.

In fact, Wallace was so intent on getting the word out that he even crossed swords with his own employer on occasion. This was perhaps most apparent with a 60 Minutes story about tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, a Brown & Williamson biochemist who exposed the company’s tampering with its cigarette blends by adding chemicals to make them more addictive. When lawyers for CBS News advised pulling the original segment in favor of an edited version, citing breach of confidentiality concerns that could lead to a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against the network, Wallace fought to air the unedited story intact. The original version would eventually be broadcast, but not until after considerable criticism was leveled against the news magazine for caving in to corporate pressure. (Wigand’s story, told in the feature film “The Insider” (1999), portrays Wallace as complicit with the attorneys’ recommendations, but this documentary contends otherwise.)

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On the set of a 60 Minutes segment, journalist Mike Wallace prepares for one of many interviews he conducted during his 38 years with the show, a legacy examined in detail in the new documentary “Mike Wallace Is Here.” Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Wallace’s commitment to his craft was undeniable, so much so that he was willing to try the untried. By pushing through limitations and so-called unbreachable barriers, he took interviewing and investigative journalism in entirely new directions. Many of his innovative approaches not only moved forward the progress of 60 Minutes, but they also helped influence the many news magazine progeny that followed. His willingness to ask the tough questions, the kind that more timid reporters were afraid to broach, distinguished him and his eagerness to get to the truth.

This in-depth look at the life and career of one of television journalism’s most influential reporters reveals how he significantly helped to reshape an industry and its practices. Through interviews before his death in 2012, as well as a wealth of archive footage, viewers witness the seasoned reporter at work in his many diverse conversations. The film also features interviews of Wallace conducted by colleagues Morley Safer, Barbara Walters and his son Chris Wallace in which he guardedly reveals his personal side, including a secret he never discussed with anyone. The overall package paints a picture of someone who opened up the profession to new tactics and styles of questioning, as well as to scrutiny about how far is going too far, an engaging documentary about a fascinating individual. Earlier this year, director Avi Belkin’s offering earned a Grand Jury Prize nomination in the documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival.

When we find our calling, it should be a cause for celebration – and a sign that it’s time to get to work on fulfilling our destiny. It may take us a while to reach that point, but we should look to ourselves and our beliefs to search for clues in uncovering what that entails. If we commit to that, as Mike Wallace did, there’s no telling what we can accomplish. And that’s certainly news worth sharing.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

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Copyright © 2019, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.