n a time when comic book superheroes are the bravest figures we have, the new documentary “Hesburgh” reminds us of the remarkable impact that just one person can have on the greater good. Recounting the life story of Father Theodore Hesburgh, the Catholic priest who headed the University of Notre Dame for 35 years while engaging six US presidents on issues ranging from nuclear arms to civil rights, the film provides a fast-paced look at American history as a whole in the second half of the 20th century.
The film is narrated throughout by segments from Hesburgh’s journals read by Maurice LaMarche, recounting the priest’s intimate thoughts from a remarkable life in which he was close friends with not only Pope Paul VI but, with the exception of Gerald Ford, US presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan. Those relationships enabled him to have great influence on policies on major issues, and “Hesburgh” makes it clear he was also a passionate thorn in the side of all those figures as well when he felt it necessary.
Opening with photos of his childhood in Syracuse, it is made clear early on that Hesburgh had a tightknit family and was particularly close to his sister Mary. He notes that he knew from the age of 6 that he wanted to be a priest, amid the post-World War II era in which the clergy was a heroic field to join.
He began his career as a military chaplain, but in 1952 received the order to become president of the University of Notre Dame. The college was not well-respected when he entered, so he opted to “shake things up” by placing more focus on academics rather than just the school’s famous Fighting Irish football team and ousted deans and faculty upon arrival.
While most priests were averse to fundraising, Hesburgh had a gift for mingling with the rich and powerful and quickly turned Notre Dame into a major national force. But aside from fundraising, his outspoken opinions on the morality of sociopolitical issues inspired President Eisenhower to appoint him to a US Commission on Civil Rights, which developed much of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was also enabled to serve as an informal mediator between the US and the Soviet Union amid growing tensions.
Throughout, Hesburgh drew controversy for many of his stances, particularly from the Vatican when he refused to bow down to strong new rules that sought to limit what Catholic universities could teach or comment on in classrooms. He tried to establish a balance between academic honesty and spiritual purity that would eventually set an example for other Catholic colleges.
His final controversy came when he publicly approved of Notre Dame’s invitation for President Barack Obama to deliver a commencement address. Because of Obama’s openly pro-choice stance on abortion, many Catholics considered the invitation to be morally inappropriate, but Hesburgh not only endorsed the speech but was commended by Obama while seated in the front row.
“Hesburgh” packs a lot of fascinating stories into its 106-minute running time, spotlighting a man who many might otherwise forget in the time since his death at age 97 in 2015. Director Patrick Creadon moves things at a rapid yet manageable clip in order to pack in as much of his amazing tale as possible, and uses a stunning array of historical footage and photos throughout.
In fact, the film often feels like a real-life version of “Forrest Gump” or Woody Allen’s “Zelig” because of the incredible array of famous figures that he interacted with en route to effecting major change in both America as a whole and Catholic universities’ interactions with the Church government in the Vatican.
There are some highly effective quieter moments as well, as Creadon looks at Hesburgh’s relationships with his students. Many recall that if his office light was on at 2 a.m., Hesburgh didn’t mind if students climbed the fire escape to come speak with him.
The most emotionally stirring tale comes from famous journalist and author Robert Sam Anson, whose close friendship with Hesburgh as a student paid off when the priest personally called Pope Paul VI to negotiate on Anson’s behalf when the writer was captured by Cambodian forces while on assignment there during the Vietnam War. Anson was released after three weeks, and acknowledges that Hesburgh’s call to the pontiff saved his life.
It might be easy to label Hesburgh as politically liberal, but the film also makes it clear that his views were more complicated than that. For instance, he instituted policies to limit student protests during the Vietnam War that forced suspensions or expulsions upon those who would not stop after being given a 15-minute warning to disperse. Many other colleges nationwide followed his lead in order to quash dissent and restore order to their campuses.
One aspect of the film that seems lacking, however, is that it makes no mention of the fact that Hesburgh’s peak era of the 1950s and ’60s was also the time when most of the Catholic Church’s abuse scandals were taking place. While I’m not questioning Hesburgh as being part of such behavior, surely a clergyman of his stature had to know what was occurring behind closed doors and committed the sin of omission of looking the other way.
Aside from its wondrous use of footage and photos, the two best elements of “Hesburgh” are its narration and its musical score. Narrator LaMarche makes the recollections of Hesburgh come alive in compelling fashion, while composer Alex Mansour applies a terrific and boisterous jazz score to underscore the fast-paced life and times of an international force of nature.
As a history of one man who used his life in a quest for what he deemed positive social changes, “Hesburgh” offers an engaging and entertaining look back at the biggest events of the 20th century’s second half. n