After watching Patrick Creadon’s documentary about Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., President of the University of Notre Dame from 1952 to 1987, you might wonder whether the film is intended as part of the cause for his canonization. It contains few criticisms of him, apart from occasional nasty remarks from the likes of Richard Nixon, George Wallace and Vatican bureaucrats, but given the sources those are rather easy to dismiss.
Much of the film is narrated in Hesburgh’s own words—it’s sort of an oral autobiography, with his memoirs read by Maurice LaMarche (though Hesburgh speaks for himself in archival footage). It covers Hesburgh’s life from childhood (he says he decided he wanted to be a priest when he was six) through his retirement, augmenting his own reminiscences with plenty of archival footage, stills, and observations from admirers, colleagues, friends and relatives as well as connecting narration.
One element of the result is what might be termed ecclesiastical and academic. It includes the decision of his superiors at the Congregation of Holy Cross to appoint him at a young age—only in his mid-thirties—to such an important post (which he would hold for thirty-five years). But what remains impressive are his myriad accomplishments in that role—vastly improving the academic side of the school (using his formidable fund-raising prowess), transferring governance powers to a board that included laymen, and transforming Notre Dame into a coed institution.
Hesburgh also defended the principle of academic freedom at American Catholic universities, resisting efforts from the papal curia to impose its will on functions at Notre Dame and leading the presidents of a consortium of his fellow colleges to issue the so-called Land O’Lakes Statement reaffirming the principle in 1967. His friendship with students throughout his tenure is also emphasized, though it is noted that the relationship was sorely tested by campus unrest against the Vietnam War in the 1960s (when his employment of strict discipline against protestors caused some to question his own position on the matter). On the other hand, the film devotes considerable space to the case of Robert Anson, a former student who was taken prisoner while serving as a correspondent for Time Magazine in 1970 and was freed after Hesburgh had asked his friend Pope Paul VI to intervene on his behalf; Anson tears up recollecting Hesburgh’s intervention.
The other portion of the documentary records Hesburgh’s wider service to the nation, especially as a member of the Civil Rights Commission, to which he was appointed by President Eisenhower and on which he remained during turbulent times. The success of the group in reaching unanimity in its initial recommendations, despite their diverse viewpoints, is attributed to his ability to bring people together, in the first instance by inviting them all to enjoy a fishing outing, once again, at Notre Dame’s property at Land O’Lakes in Wisconsin. And he became a forceful advocate for racial equality, famously appearing with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Chicago’s Soldier Field in 1964 and later earning the hostility of President Nixon for his refusal to tone down criticism of his administration’s enforcement policies.
The film follows Hesburgh into retirement from the presidency in 1987 through his death in 2015, including his standing by the decision of his successor John Jenkins to invite President Obama to campus in 2009 despite vociferous opposition from pro-life protestors. It leaves it to the viewer to couple that with Hesburgh’s own decision to permit George Wallace to speak on campus in 1964, despite their fundamentally different views.
“Hesburgh” undoubtedly verges on hagiography, but it presents a persuasive portrait of a man who served both his university and his country with vigor and unquestionable administrative skill. Notre Dame graduates will especially appreciate it, and beyond them American Catholics generally; but anyone who admires people of vision and personal commitment can benefit from it.
One should add that Creadon’s direction is capable, the script by Nick Andert, Jerry Barca and William Neal straightforward, the camerawork by Turner Jumonville fine, the score by Alex Mansour unobtrusive, and—most important in such a film—the editing by Nick Andert and William Neal smooth and efficient.
At one point when Hesburgh had become especially peripatetic because of his work in government service, fundraising, and ecclesiastical politics, a wag at the university came up with a wry observation, related in the film: “What’s the difference between God and Father Hesburgh? God is everywhere—and Hesburgh is everywhere except Notre Dame.” He might not be quite so omnipresent now, but he has found a well-deserved place on the big screen, in a form that is likely to serve nicely on smaller ones for years to come.