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Like its Subject, “Hesburgh” Transcends Notre Dame to Make a Universal Connection

Father Hesburgh walks and talks with Notre Dame students during his presidency.
Courtesy of OCP Media

Directed by Patrick Creadon
104 minutes
4 12 stars out of 5

While Father Ted Hesburgh was anything but a joke, there’s often one told about him that is the guiding star for a new documentary about his remarkable life.

What’s the difference between God and Father Hesburgh?

God is everywhere.

Father Hesburgh is everywhere but Notre Dame.

While “Hesburgh” is produced and directed by Notre Dame alumni, they wisely eschew the navel-gazing of Fr. Ted’s on-campus achievements to emphasize moments where the Holy Cross priest effectuated global change. I have no doubt that a film about Fr. Ted’s decision to admit female students or grow the university’s endowment or its footprint would have sold incredibly well in the campus’ bookstores.

“Hesburgh” is much more ambitious, recounting each major nexus between Fr. Ted’s indefatigable push for peace and equality and a 50-year period during which fear of otherness and outmoded, patriarchal groupthink complicated the fight for human rights.

Presidents -- from Dwight Eisenhower to Ronald Reagan -- appointed the priest and university president to more than a dozen committees, but it’s his 15 years in service to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission that is the foundation of “Hesburgh.”

The commission’s objective, at least initially, was to investigate the pervasiveness of minority voter disenfranchisement in the south. Tensions were oftentimes hotter than a Shreveport summer, as warring factions clashed over the group’s direction.

The stalemate was broken by the priest, a political independent, who suggested escaping the south for a more comfortable climate on university-owned property in Wisconsin. After an afternoon of fishing -- and undoubtedly aided by martinis -- the bipartisan body agreed unanimously to offer 11 recommendations to the president, with a 12th receiving just one dissension.

Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, in a meeting of the Civil Rights Commission.
Courtesy of OCP Media

“I told Ike that he had not appointed just Republicans and Democrats or Northerners and Southerners, he had appointed six fishermen,” Hesburgh recalled. “I told him about Land O’Lakes and he commented, ‘We’ve got to put more fishermen on commissions and have more reports written at Land O’Lakes, Wisconsin.’”

While those recommendations would become the foundation of three essential pieces of legislation -- Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act -- progress on behalf of all Americans was too often impeded by political expediency.

If there’s a defining characteristic of Fr. Ted in “Hesburgh,” it’s fearlessness. Just as he had earlier stood up against the Vatican’s attempts to censor speech on campus, Hesburgh openly criticized the Richard Nixon administration for its lax effort in advancing civil rights causes.

“Hesburgh” includes remarkable audio of President Nixon and John Ehrlichman, the president’s domestic policy adviser, griping privately about their commission’s chairman and vowing to “kill the damn agency.” Ultimately, Nixon requested -- and received -- just one resignation: Hesburgh’s.

Clashes between Nixon and Hesburgh may have been more high-profile than the one between a university president and the outspoken founder of the student newspaper, but the stakes ended up being much higher in the latter.

This is the film’s emotional apex, wherein Robert Anson becomes the proverbial thorn in the administration’s side. Hesburgh anguishes while balancing students’ right to resist the Vietnam War without disrupting university operations, and Anson -- now working for TIME --- sends Fr. Ted a telegram suggesting he resign for expelling students for their nonviolent, passive protest.

After Anson is captured in Cambodia and held hostage by the North Vietnamese, a TIME editor phoned Hesburgh and asked him for a miracle. The university president called a friend -- Pope Paul VI -- and said, “Unless you can intervene, he’ll be dead.”

Anson’s appearance in “Hesburgh” is moving, because it’s testament to Fr. Ted’s reach well beyond Notre Dame as well as his compassion. No individual is ever perfect in their judgment. But Hesburgh’s batting average in regards to making the right decision -- even if it came at a personal cost -- was higher than most.

“Hesburgh” was an emotional experience. I entered with a basic understanding of Fr. Ted’s worldly impact, and the documentary added layers that sometimes stoked outrage and, other times, inspired. I also didn’t expect to laugh as much as I did.

Fr. Ted enjoyed finding commonality between passionate people on opposite sides -- black or white, Catholic or Jew, Democrat or Republican -- and building lasting friendships. This is what “Hesburgh” celebrates and ultimately why I think it’ll resonate with audiences outside the Notre Dame universe.

One final note: While the creators of the film relied on archival footage and personal papers only available at Notre Dame, they preserved their editorial independence by not soliciting the university for funding or accepting any donations from Notre Dame. They’ve also decided to give 100 percent of the profits of the film to charities supported by the Hesburgh family, a subset that does not include the university.

Opens April 26 in South Bend and Chicago, and May 3 nationwide. For showtimes, visit