Father Theodore Hesburgh lived a remarkable life. He may be best known for the 35 years (1952-1987) he spent serving as the president of the University of Notre Dame, during which time he dramatically increased that school’s endowment and operating fund and helped reshape the school. When he arrived, it was a small, men-only school known primarily for its football team; when he retired, it had become a major coeducational university known for scholarship as well as sports.
In his day, Hesburgh was well known public figure who often appeared in the popular media alongside political and social leaders (his good looks and charisma probably didn’t hurt his TV career either). Among other things, he served on (and later chaired) the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, served as the Vatican representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and sat on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Science Board. Patrick Creadon’s documentary Hesburgh provides a review of Hesburgh’s life and many achievements, often narrated through his own words (read by actor Maurice LaMarche). Hesburgh’s own words are supplemented with a good selection of archival footage and interviews with public figures like Ted Koppel, Leon Panetta, Nancy Pelosi, and Ann Landers (the latter, although Jewish, considered him an advisor as well as a close friend) as well as members of the Hesburgh family and former student Robert Sam Anson.
One of the most valuable aspects of Hesburgh is the way it lays bare the reality of civil rights in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. Short version: it was worse than you could imagine, and not just when demonstrators were getting their heads beaten in by policemen—appallingly racist views were considered mainstream and many Americans thought Civil Rights activists were just troublemakers. It was also a time when white men were considered the de facto authority on just about everything, even when other voices could really have been useful: for instance, the original six members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights were all male, and five were white.
Given that context, the fact that Hesburgh understood the privilege granted him by virtue of his skin color, the reality of life for those not born with that privilege, and was willing to stick his neck out to articulate the difference, really did matter. Even better, he had a gift for stating things in a way that could penetrate even the minds of those most resistant to his message—for instance, he likened blaming nonwhite people for their lot in so racist a country as the United States to “holding a man under water and saying ‘why don’t you swim?'”. Unfortunately, Hesburgh showed no such gift for understanding what it meant to be born without Y chromosomes, but that’s a story for another day.
Hesburgh is a well-made if conventional documentary—Creadon’s previous films include Wordplay ( 2006) and I.O.U.S.A. (2008)—but its tone is odd for a theatrically released film. Put plainly, Hesburgh resembles a celebratory funeral oration or an inspirational film for Catholic fundraisers more than a documentary with a point of view independent of that of its subject. Any viewer not swept up in the tidal wave of admiration for Father Hesburgh that constitutes this film will be left wondering what got left on the cutting room floor and what, if any, avenues of investigation were shut down as certainly as were the student protestors at Notre Dame. | Sarah Boslaugh