23 Jul ‘Dateline-Saigon’ Documentary Explores Evolution of Five Pulitzer-Winning Journalists
In his documentary, “Dateline-Saigon,” Producer/Director Tom Herman focuses on the stories of five reporters: Peter Arnett, Malcolm Browne, David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, and photojournalist Horst Faas. It is now available to stream on iTunes, and Herman noted that it soon will be available on Amazon Prime as well.
The film, Herman said, shows their evolution from early career journalists with “no experience, no reputation” to “journalistic legends of that era,” all of whom went on the win Pulitzers for their work on the conflict.
Comprised of exclusive interviews, archival footage from both Vietnam and Washington, including audio recordings of President John F. Kennedy speaking with diplomatic and military leaders in the White House, the film juxtaposes the day-to-day reality on the ground against the evolving political rhetoric of the day.
Herman called making the documentary “a journey of discovery,” noting that he received some materials from private collections (such as Halberstam family 8mm home movies), leaned on the National Archives to find video footage from the beginnings and endings of press conferences in Saigon that captured snippets of the journalists reporting and setting up, and uncovering recently declassified materials.
Herman noted that when they landed on the ground, the journalists he tracked generally were supportive of the U.S. government and military, assuming they were following in the footsteps of those who covered World War II. As Sheehan says in the film, he and other journalists arrived “filled with all the myths of the Cold War” and American dominance.
“It was very hard to accept that people who I normally would have revered, like a four-star American general, were lying,” Halberstam says in the film.
Coming to a similar realization, Arnett notes that when he knew his “competitive colleagues were facing the same dangers” it created camraderie among the professional rivals, even as they raced to file stories sometimes within minutes of one another under challenging conditions. Faas speaks eloquently about his desire to “reflect in photographs” the reality of what he witnessed in the field.
Narrated by Sam Waterston, the film took 12 years to come together and many of those Herman interviewed are no longer living. The director’s interest in the subject matter began organically, as the later stages of the war unfolded during his high school years. Later, while working as a producer at CNN, he spent weeks in Vietnam covering an anniversary of the end of the war, encountering many journalists who covered it the action as it unfolded and were still working as reporters decades later.
Herman said that later generations of reporters modeled themselves on those who covered Vietnam: “The example set by these reporters, holding government to account, et cetera, under very difficult conditions, has been an example for many young reporters.”
In particular, he cited comments Dexter Filkins made at a memorial service for Halberstam, after he died in a car accident in 2007:
“In Iraq, when the official version didn’t match what we were seeing on the streets of Baghdad, all we had to do — and we did it a lot — was ask ourselves: What would Halberstam have done? And then the way was clear. David taught us a great lesson — and not just to the reporters in Iraq, but to anyone who has ever tried to hold his government to account. And that is, the truth is not just a point of view. Truth does not adhere to the person who shouts the loudest. And truth does not necessarily belong to the people with the most power.”
A turning point in the film, which has affected journalistic writing and photography on conflicts with American involvement every since, comes as the U.S. military shuts down access to aircraft for reporters, thus limiting their time with troops at various levels and ability to see for themselves what was happening during battles and across Vietnam. The five reporters’ persistence and ingenuity as the official channels of communication shut down dominate the latter half of the film.
“I view this film more about journalists and journalism than Vietnam. Vietnam is a case study on the importance of an independent press to a democracy,” Herman said.
“Their legacy lives on.”
By Megan Mulligan, The Pulitzer Prizes
Read the article here: pulitzer.org