Covering Vietnam
Dateline-Saigon is a powerful, haunting documentary about 5 journalists reporting the truth about the Vietnam War
Dateline-Saigon, documentary, Vietnam War, reporting, reporters, journalism, Thomas D. Herman, David Halberstam, Malcolm Browne, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett, Horst Faas, John F. Kennedy, President Kennedy, New York Times, Associated Press, United Press International
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The Progressive

Covering Vietnam

Dateline-Saigon is arguably the best American documentary about the Vietnam War since Peter Davis’s 1974 Academy Award winning Hearts and Minds. Thomas D. Herman’s ninety-six-minute nonfiction film focuses on a quintet of crusading correspondents stationed in the then-Republic of Vietnam (a.k.a. South Vietnam) in the early 1960s.

The far-flung Pulitzer Prize winners featured are New Zealander Peter Arnett, New York-born Malcolm Browne, and German photojournalist Horst Faas, who ran the Associated Press’s Saigon bureau, while Americans Neil Sheehan of United Press International and his fellow Harvard grad David Halberstam, The New York Times’s man in ‘Nam, shared an office.

Through interviews together with black-and-white and color news clips and photos, Dateline-Saigon nostalgically resurrects a pre-digital journalism world, when wire services sent dispatches across the globe via clunky teletype machines, and manual typewriters—not computers—were the tools of the trade.

Indeed, the clacking of keys and the ringing of right margin bells, along with some rock music, form the film’s soundtrack. Nevertheless, while Dateline-Saigon chronicles events almost sixty years ago, it is surprisingly timely for our own age. Then as now, bona fide journalists have been vilified as “enemies of the people.”

The documentary zooms in on how these five young men, whose minds Sheehan tells us were full of “Cold War mythology,” slowly came to the realization that they were being misled and lied to by military briefers, brass, and Kennedy Administration officials including Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.

By leaving the comforts of Saigon’s first-class hotels and heading out into the countryside, these intrepid reporters saw for themselves that the war wasn’t going nearly as well as the generals and admirals were saying.

In early 1960s vintage footage of press conferences and interviews, JFK defends the anticommunist “Domino Theory” and “dances around” (as the film’s narrator, Sam Waterston, puts it) what U.S. forces are actually doing in Vietnam: Are they merely military “advisors” to their South Vietnamese counterparts, or are they actually taking part in combat?

According to Dateline-Saigon, generals and administration officials pressured media outlets to censor critical reporting that contradicted the rosy picture that the war hawks were falsely portraying.

Some old-school reporters also took the critical journalists to task. Sheehan remembers that when fabled WWII combat correspondent Richard Tregaskis of Guadalcanal Diary fame visited Vietnam he groused, “If I was doing what you were doing, I’d be ashamed of myself.”

After CBS News aired footage of U.S. soldiers torching Vietnamese huts, President Johnson woke CBS President Frank Stanton with a 5 a.m. call complaining, “Yesterday your boys shat on the American flag.”

The film follows the five undaunted journalists as they persist in their mission of truth telling. They asked why the South Vietnamese soldiers were so uninspired, in contrast to the highly motivated Viet Cong. They reported on the persecution of Buddhists by the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese regime of President Ngô Đình Diệm. Photographs taken by Browne—a Quaker sympathetic to the majority Buddhists—of the self-immolation of a monk to protest Diệm’s oppression made front page news around the world.

With Marie Antoinette-like panache, Diệm’s sister-in-law, Madame Nhu, is seen callously dismissing the monk’s suicide as being “barbecued”; according to the film, she wanted those pesky correspondents to suffer similar fates. Sheehan also contends, in what appears to be an original interview for the filmmakers, that the independent-minded reporters’ names were included on an “assassination list.” And the documentary maintains that U.S. Marines threatened the life of CBS’s Morley Safer after he exposed their burning of Cam Ne village during a “search and destroy mission.”

Despite attempts by the Pentagon and the Johnson Administration to stifle their coverage, the combat correspondents were generally permitted to go out in the field and report on what they saw. The film should have stressed that, in most conflicts since Vietnam, policymakers have denied wide access to journalists, instead “embedding” them to control their movements and limit their reporting.

Dateline-Saigon, which has already won several awards on the film festival circuit, shows that what the powers-that-be denounce the loudest as “fake news” is often highly factual reporting that disproves or goes against a preferred, but false, narrative.

“If the government tells the truth, reporters are relatively unimportant,” Halberstam says in the film. “When governments twist the truth, journalists become infinitely more important.”

Director Herman previously co-produced 2002’s Live from Baghdad, an Emmy Award-winning dramatization of CNN’s coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, with Bruce McGill depicting Peter Arnett, who interviewed Saddam Hussein. Arnett, who also interviewed Osama bin Laden in 1997, and Sheehan are the only members of the legendary, heroic team of truth tellers in Dateline-Saigon who are still alive.

When Hearts and Minds won the Oscar in 1975, producer Bert Schneider scandalized the Motion Picture Academy during his acceptance speech by reading a telegram on live television from a Viet Cong leader just as Saigon was being “liberated” and transformed into Ho Chi Minh City. Who knows what address Herman may make if his newest inspiring, Academy Award-caliber documentary—a homage to journalism at its best and brightest—also strikes Oscar gold?

By Ed Rampell, The Progressive
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