Documentary Review “Hesburgh” remembers a religious shaker and mover of the ’60s

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It’s a disservice to refer to the documentary, “Hesburgh,” about the longtime president of the University of Notre Dame and American Catholic hero Theodore Hesburgh as a “hagiography.” But when a filmmaker cannot find anybody to say a bad thing about the man he’s profiling, the natural tendency is to wonder “Did he try?”

Patrick Creadon’s film still captures a complicated figure, a “liberal” only by the Catholic Church’s standards of the day, an “activist” in an almost forgotten forgotten use of the word, who hobnobbed with the rich and powerful and worked — always from the inside — for social justice, peace and progress from the Eisenhower 1950s to the Reagan Era ’80s.

Hesburgh died in 2015, had retired from Notre Dame in 1987 and his peak years in the public eye were half a century ago. Calling him “forgotten” outside of Catholic and Notre Dame circles isn’t entirely unfair. But few public figures carried the weight of his imprint on history more lightly and who was a role model not just for his ideals, but for how he embodied them.

They don’t make them like Father Ted Hesburgh any more. In a time when any news story that begins with “Catholic priest” brings an almost reflexive cringe, here was a “philosopher,” educator, visionary and priest who said Mass almost every day of his life and who represented a brand of tolerance that was rare “back then,” and is even rarer today.

Creadon (“I.O.U.S.A.” and “All Work All Play” were his) uses archival footage, old TV interviews, an early “60 Minutes” profile and the like, as well as interviews with colleagues, former students, relatives and contemporaries to paint an overwhelmingly flattering picture of a man who seemed to be in the thick of most of the great debates of America from the 1950s into the ’80s.

An actor (Maurice LaMarche) reads Hesburgh’s words from his memoirs, telling us he’d wanted to be a priest since age six, that the Church ordered him to pursue a Phd instead of becoming a military chaplain during World War II, a priest and academic groomed to take over the presidency of the University of Notre Dame in his late 30s.

We see how Father Ted asserted the school’s independence from the Vatican, fighting to make Notre Dame famous for something more than “Touchdown Jesus.” He cast off the free speech restrictions of the Catholic Church to build a great university.

He had to be an educator, an administrator and a fundraiser at Notre Dame. That put him in the company of big names in oil, the CEOs of airlines and Coca-Cola. And that, in turn, put him on the radar of the Eisenhower Administration, which appointed him to the first President’s Commission on Civil Rights back in 1957.

Much of the film is about the efforts of that commission — mostly older white men with an African American labor attorney member as well — to visit, investigate and when necessary subpoena officials in the Deep South (Judge and later Governor George Wallace among them) and elsewhere to find out why America was becoming, as Hesburgh noted at the time, “two societies, one white and the other black.”

Eisenhower had to intervene, at times, to get the Commission (which had African Americans on its staff) accommodations in places like Montgomery, Alabama. Even the commanding at the local military base refused to welcome them.

A telling TV moment? We see Hesburgh quietly challenging the racist Montgomery County, Alabama sheriff with “Has there ever been, in history, a good society built on fear?”

It’s sobering to see this GOP presidential commission digging into issues like segregation and voter suppression, and know which political party has been striving to bring back those days in the states of the former Confederacy today.

It still startles, 60 years later, seeing someone articulate “the problem” as bluntly as Hesburgh did, noting the “thousand times a day” a person of color dealt with discrimination in 1950s America, and how laughable the counter-arguments sounded to him.

“It’s like holding a man underwater and asking, ‘Why don’t you SWIM?'”

He was on stage with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., deeply involved in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament (also dating from the Eisenhower years), a glad-hander who enjoyed cigars and bourbon with those he was trying to bring together at peace conferences or Civil Rights Commission meetings.

As Vatican envoy to nuclear disarmament talks in 1957, he started to see the avocation life was adding to his priesthood vocation — that of  “a mediator.”

The Latin word for “priest” is “bridge builder,” the former religion editor at Newsweek remarks. That was Hesburgh.

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Creadon presents all this in a brisk, lively film, with lots of topical music underscoring the archival footage, and interviews with everyone from former students who became journalists or members of Congress to Ted Koppel and former Senator Alan Simpson.

The director only hints at the self-described “imperfect” side of Hesburgh, a man who like the Protestant Billy Graham was entirely too cozy with great power, — calling in favors from his old friend, Pope Paul VI, Jimmy Carter and others, living modestly enough on campus but recipient of many a “gift,” and more often ensconced in limos or jets on his way here or there, generally put up in fine hotels.

The film’s real “negatives” are reserved for the Vatican, which tried repeatedly to reign in Notre Dame and censor who the campus invited to speak or teach there, for JFK who “slow-walked” the recommendations of the Civil Rights Commission (Eisenhower didn’t even slow-walk them), for LBJ who “blackmailed” members of Congress to push through the landmark Civil Rights legislation of his presidency, and Richard Nixon, who is heard on tape sniping about Hesburgh (who turned on Nixon and the War in Vietnam, eventually).

But the portrait that emerges hasn’t been rendered inaccurate by history, and the film corrects the crime that such a noble public figure should be forgotten, especially in a time when “noble public figure” is almost an oxymoron.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Theodore Hesburgh,  Nancy Pelosi, Tim Roemer, Ted Koppel

Credits: Patrick Creadon. Written by Nick Andert, Jerry Barca, William Neal. An O’Malley/Creadon release.

Running time: 1:46

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