'Hesburgh': Film Review

Hesburgh Still 3 - OPC Media Publicity-h 2019
Courtesy of OPC Media Publicity
So heavy on the praise it might make some suspicious.

Patrick Creadon's doc tours through the long career of one of the most famous Catholics in American history.

Toward the end of his career, Catholic priest Ted Hesburgh was asked if, assuming he could do only one, he would choose being a man of the cloth or the President of the United States. He chose the former, and judging from Patrick Creadon's Hesburgh, it's no surprise: He would have had much less impact as a mere president.

A portrait of a clearly remarkable man whose counsel was sought by popes, presidents, students and advice columnists, the documentary is stuffed with both history and praise — so much of the latter that the picture sounds sometimes like hagiography. Only on one occasion does Creadon find anything his subject did that might have been a misstep; even there (when dealing with 1960s student protests), his motives were pure. Serving as a profile in courage whose hero was widely loved, it doesn't necessarily convince those of us who don't know the man that we needed to see a doc about him.

More than most who believe they were called to the priesthood, Theodore Hesburgh reportedly knew he was right — from the age of 6 or so, according to the narration based on Hesburgh's copious writings and speeches. When World War II broke out, he "desperately" wanted to serve as a Navy chaplain. But talent-spotting superiors said no, and sent him into academia, eventually making him president of the University of Notre Dame. He would hold the position for 35 years, but would also hold an awful lot of other positions concurrently through the years.

From the start, the film depicts Hesburgh as savvy about friend-making, consensus-building and fund-raising. He made big changes at Notre Dame, enlisting captains of industry to fund new buildings and higher salaries, but he didn't get his way by being a yes man. He said no to the Vatican itself when he was ordered to censor a book on religious liberty by John Courtney Murray. He would still go on to be a close friend of a pontiff, Pope Paul VI.

In the 1950s, his reputation spread beyond Catholic circles. President Dwight D. Eisenhower put him on a national science board as a "moral voice," which led to a role easing tensions between U.S./U.S.S.R. reps in later atomic-weapon negotiations. But the film suggests he found his true calling when he was appointed to the federal Civil Rights Commission.

Here is where, as Creadon tells it, the people skills really paid off: When, after years of gathering evidence and enduring attacks from racists like George Wallace, the commission found itself unable to produce a report, Hesburgh organized a lakeside retreat and contrived to get opponents stuck in fishing boats together alone for hours. The Northerners and Southerners on the Commission may have had their differences, the joke went, but "we were all fishermen." The report got written.

The doc's most engaging moments follow the Civil Rights struggle from that point onward, as Hesburgh was disappointed by some leaders (John F. Kennedy), surprised by others (Lyndon B. Johnson) and risked upsetting the status quo by aligning himself with one (Martin Luther King Jr.) whose status as a national hero was far from assured at the time. And then there was Richard M. Nixon, who thought he could use the priest to his advantage, only to find Hesburgh ready to criticize his quasi-ally in public.

Interviewees including Ted Koppel, Nancy Pelosi and Leon Panetta sing Hesburgh's praises, while less famous colleagues or mentees shed more light on how he made things happen — and how, surprisingly, he did his globe-trotting work while also being accessible to Notre Dame students whenever he was there. Koppel believes he was characterized by "a fundamental belief in the redeemability of mankind." Some would say the jury's out on that issue, but near-unanimous love and admiration suggests Hesburgh's stance was a great way to win friends and influence people.

Production company: O'Malley Creadon Productions
Director: Patrick Creadon
Screenwriters: Nick Andert, Jerry Barca, William Neal
Producers: Jerry Barca, Christine O'Malley
Director of photography: Turner Jumonville
Editors: Nick Andert, William Neal
Composer: Alex Mansour

106 minutes