‘Dateline-Saigon’: What’s Old is New Again

Dateline-Saigon has been making the rounds of film festivals since 2017. This documentary—released by First Run Features on iTunes, Amazon, and on DVD on July 14, 2020—zeroes in on five young newspaper correspondents who covered the budding war in Vietnam from 1961-64: Malcolm Browne, Peter Arnett, Horst Fass (a photojournalist), Neil Sheehan, and David Halberstam. Brown, Arnett, and Fass worked for the Associated Press; Sheehan for United Press International (and later The New York Times); and Halberstam for The Times.

The 95-minute film, directed by Thomas D. Herman, starts with the relatively inexperienced journalist Browne coming to sleepy Saigon in 1961 at age thirty. He was soon joined by Peter Arnett, a brash New Zealander, 27, and the German-born Faas, 29. Sheehan arrived on the scene in 1962 at 25—as did Halberstam, 28, who replaced the renowned war correspondent Homer Bigert as the Times’ Saigon bureau chief. All of the men won Pulitzer Prizes for their war coverage. Sheehan and Halberstam would go on to write two of the best books about the war: Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest and Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie.

Sheehan in Vietnam 

The movie makes use of a significant amount of talking-head interviews with the five men, whom Halberstam called a “tiny little army of journalists.” It’s well known that those young men regularly accompanied the South Vietnamese military and their American advisers in the field to get the true picture of the worsening war. And that they also reported bluntly on the mounting South Vietnamese political upheaval. And that they did their work in the face of a stone wall of false, upbeat information force-fed by the Saigon regime, the U.S. military, and the Kennedy administration.

The powers that be—including President Kennedy himself, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and MACV Commander Gen. Paul Harkins—were not happy that, as they saw it, Browne, Sheehan, and company were hindering the fight against worldwide communism. A military briefer once famously admonished Browne with these words, “Why can’t you get on the team?”

All of the five correspondents have spoken and written extensively about what they faced trying to cover the war—as have many Vietnam War historians. What’s more, the interviews with the five men in the film (and with the late Walter Cronkite and the late Morley Safer) were filmed more than a few years ago. How long ago? It’s not clear in the doc, but we do know that Halberstam died in 2007, Browne and Faas in 2012.

What is new and valuable in Dateline-Saigon is how Herman and crew have melded those old interviews with evocative still photography and news film and with primary-source material to create a narrative that tells this well-known story quite well. That includes frequent references to a manual Browne created for new correspondents in Vietnam; clips from a bunch of Kennedy’s speeches and press conferences; and excerpts from JFK’s secret White House taping system.

It’s eerie to listen in as JFK discusses how to put a lid on the young pesky truth-telling journalists in conversations with McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, and some of his other bright foreign policy advisers.

—Marc Leepson, Arts Editor


July 18, 2020

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