Maybe there’s hope for journalism yet. Two recent features celebrate the profession, both when it triumphs, as with “Spotlight,” and when it fails, as with “Truth.”
Thomas Herman’s new documentary, “Dateline – Saigon” (release is expected early next year), takes a look at controversial, groundbreaking coverage of the first phase of the Vietnam War, from 1961 to 1964.
He focuses on five young journalists, all of whom would win Pulitzer Prizes: The New York Times’s David Halberstam, UPI’s Neil Sheehan, and the Associated Press’s Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett, and Horst Faas, all of whom defied the official story and sought the truth. Through clips, recordings, photos, and interviews, Herman uncovers a period in history not many know about and celebrates a breed of newsman that we hope will never go out of style.
He discussed the film over the phone from his home in Boston.
Q. This film took over 12 years to make. That’s almost as long as the Vietnam War. Why so long?
A. With independent filmmaking, part of the challenge is raising money. And of course I had a day job as well.
Q. You’re a lawyer?
A. I am. It finances my bad habits, like making movies. But money and day job aside, I spent a lot of time gaining the trust of the protagonists. David Halberstam especially was a tough nut to crack; he wanted to make sure that I wasn’t doing something silly or superficial. But, frustrating as it was taking so long, in some ways it was to my benefit. Like those White House recordings — they weren’t declassified until recently. Had the film been finished five years ago, those tapes of John Kennedy and his Cabinet trying to put together their cover stories would not have been available.
Q. It’s a different Vietnam than we’re familiar with, more like the era of “The Quiet American.”
A. It is a Graham Greene-like emotional environment. Most people think about Vietnam as death, despair, and pain, with Saigon a dirty place overflowing with refugees. When these guys landed it was still the Paris of the east. It was a beautiful place, quiet except for the occasional gunfire. I wanted to tell people what it was like then.
Q. How do you think audiences today will respond to this story?
A. This is a case history of something that happened 50-plus years ago and it is totally relevant to what is happening today. It’s like what Mark Mazzetti of The New York Times is writing about, exposing the inaccurate reports from the Pentagon about fighting ISIS. If these guys weren’t reporting we’d never know. As David Halberstam says at the end of the film, when governments tell the truth, journalists aren’t that important; but when governments lie, they’re essential.Interview was edited and condensed. Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.