The latest award-winning film from University School of Milwaukee alumnus Tom Herman ’66 explores the work of five young journalists whose courageous reporting changed the face of the Vietnam War.
Storytelling is in Tom Herman’s DNA. His aunt, Betsy Jager Saltzstein, was one of the first female members of the White House press association in the 1940s. His father, David, partnered with Ben Barkin to form Barkin Herman and Associates, one of the earliest and largest public relations firms in the Midwest, which counted the United Nations among its clients. David also served as a USM trustee. “My father was an English major and a fine writer,” said Herman. “He was known for his storytelling, but also for being accurate and precise with language. Which was good and bad because, sitting around the dinner table, if we used a word wrong we’d hear about it.”
So it’s not a surprise that Herman himself developed a knack and passion for storytelling. While working as a lawyer he moonlighted as a journalist, using his vacation days to cover stories for the likes of CNN and NPR. He served as a co-producer on the 2002 Emmy-award winning television movie “Live from Baghdad.” While on assignment for CNN in 2000, he got the idea for his latest venture—the documentary film “Dateline-Saigon.” “I spent several weeks in Vietnam as field producer during the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, and while there I ran into a number of reporters who had covered the war. They were interesting characters who told fascinating stories, and I thought, ‘My goodness, there’s probably a film here.’ I wanted to capture their stories on camera while they were still around to talk about them.”
The resulting film, which Herman wrote and directed, took 12 years to makes and profiles the controversial reporting of five Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists: The New York Times’ David Halberstam; the Associated Press’ Malcolm Browne and Peter Arnett; legendary photojournalist Horst Faas; and United Press International’s Neil Sheehan. In 2017, the film won Best Documentary Feature at the Woods Hole Film Festival.
Although he graduated more than 50 years ago, Herman’s USM experience still influences his life and, in many ways, his work. “My good friends Charlie Wright ’68 and Richard Chapman ’68 were the film’s first investors. Without them, the film never would have been made. The rigorous education I got at USM was critical to my getting into college and succeeding in college. My history teacher, JS [John Stephens], was tough but inspirational. My math teacher, Howe Lagarde, who was also my wrestling coach, taught me about character building, persistence, and focus. Those lessons were really extraordinary, and still guide me to this day.”
The grit and gumption Herman gained at USM was useful during the making of “Dateline-Saigon,” which was arduous. “It’s difficult to make films. Getting people to talk to you, understanding what the story is, sourcing fresh images and sound, doing the legal work to clear the rights and get all the permissions—it’s very hard. And I felt a responsibility to get this film right, to do justice to the many people who spend long hours talking to me. It was the hardest thing I’ve done professionally, but also the most fulfilling.”
Learn more about the film at dateline-saigon.com.