Review: 'Hesburgh' offers superficial glimpse at a big life

By Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News
Father Theodore Hesburgh

“Hesburgh” is the story of a priest who knew all the right people, pushed for civil rights in America, liked cigars and bourbon, and transformed Notre Dame into something more than just a football college.

The story of a human being it is not. The halo Father Theodore Hesburgh has to carry throughout this documentary completely wipes out any chance of getting to know the actual man behind the image.

That image, though, carried a certain piety and power during his 30 years as the head of Notre Dame. He was a constant presence on talk shows, he'd pop up with guest advice in the columns of his good friend Ann Landers, he was a sort of beloved moral conscience and political bridge builder from the 1950s through the 1990s.

The film starts out with a too-quick summary of his childhood then offers little to no reason for his sudden ascension to Notre Dame's top post at age 35. It chronicles his busy life as a power player while giving no real insight as to how he climbed so far up the ladder.

That he did climb is not in question. Hesburgh chummed around with all sorts of corporate overlords, building up Notre Dame's bank account. He knew Nixon, Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan and dozens more.

In the 1950s he was appointed to the presidential civil rights commission and became instrumental in that movement, marching with Dr. King and even eventually standing up to Nixon.

His halo was likely earned and heaven knows we could use a religious figure who builds bridges these days. But this film offers little insight into whatever battles – internal or external – Hesburgh must have fought. It's far too busy polishing that halo.



Not rated

Running time: 104 minutes