As public figures go, priests aren’t exactly the most revered group at the moment; in fact, proposing that someone go see a film all about a “man of the cloth,” as impressive as his life may have been, might be met with more than a bit of skepticism in these woke times. Hesburgh, the new documentary about civil rights activist Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, isn’t exactly courting controversy with its vanilla approach to recounting the life and impact of the longtime president of the University of Notre Dame. Directed by Patrick Creadon (Convicts vs. Catholics), the film begins as little more than a bunch of old white men remembering the life of another old white man. Yawn.
A glossy compilation of talking heads (interviews with the people who knew him, historians and others), archival footage and a narration based on Hesburgh’s own journals, the film would feel right at home on a Sunday afternoon on the History Channel. Reviewing Father Ted’s early years is an exercise in nostalgia, of the days of big Catholic families with a dozen siblings, where at least one chose to join the priesthood; Hesburgh became a priest before he was 25 years old and at 35 he was named president of the most prominent Catholic university in the country, a position he would hold for the next three and a half decades.
The scope of Hesburgh’s life is undeniably grand, as he served on presidential commissions for civil rights, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King and more. He worked with and consulted for presidents ranging from JFK to Obama, and was credited with bringing a savvy negotiating strategy to every interaction, from cardinals and popes to politicians and policy makers. Some of the more touching moments come as those who knew him recount his many anonymous acts of kindness, rather than the ones he was lauded for in headlines and news coverage. It’s certainly true that Hesburgh is the kind of priest the Catholic church can be proud of, especially for an organization plagued by so many bad actors. If everything the film says about Hesburgh is true, it’s a surprise he’s not been nominated for canonization yet (though he hasn’t yet been dead five years, so there’s still time).
And yet, there’s something tone deaf about the overall feel of the film, as it props up a now-antiquated top-down model of implementing social change. Being reminded of how things used to be done—a group of white men making decisions for the rest of us—will likely receive a presumably unintended response for certain audiences, serving to remind us how far we’ve come, and how much further we have to go.
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