Documentary film examines life, work of former University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh
Thomas Murphy | Monday, April 29, 2019
Presidents, popes, protests and probity fill many scenes depicted in the recent documentary film examining the life and work of former University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh. Directed by Notre Dame alumnus Patrick Creadon ’89 and entitled “Hesburgh,” the movie debuted in South Bend and Chicago this past weekend and is set for its nationwide release beginning Thursday.
Hesburgh — known to many as “Fr. Ted” — served the University as president for 35 years, transforming the small Catholic school with a good football team into a University internationally recognized for its academics and leadership. Creadon said Hesburgh and the character of the University in the modern era are intimately intertwined.
“Fr. Ted really is the father of Notre Dame in the modern era. Obviously, Fr. [Edward] Sorin founded the school in 1842; Fr. Ted is really our second founder,” Creadon said. “It’s hard to really understand it and its mission until you really understand who Fr. Ted was.”
Though the production crew of “Hesburgh” was confident in the importance of the story they set out to share, Creadon said there were doubts about how large the film’s reception would be. In summer of 2018, the film premiered in Washington, D.C., to a sold-out crowd, putting the crew’s worries to rest and expanding the scope of the debut to a national run set to begin Friday.
“The reception has been wildly receptive, people have been wildly enthusiastic,” he said. “Our big fear was that we were going to spend two and a half years making a movie that nobody outside of Notre Dame cared to see, and that’s definitely not what the case has been.”
“Hesburgh” is not Creadon’s first Notre Dame-centric film, as he directed “Catholics vs Convicts” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” sports-documentary series. Creadon said that despite the many recent darker documentaries revolving around scandals and fraud such as “Surviving R. Kelly” and “Fyre,” he is attracted to the more hopeful aspects of humanity.
“I like to tell stories that make life worth living, that celebrate the humor and the decency and the aspirational dreams of us as a society,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn towards stories that give you hope and inspire you, and in that sense, [“Hesburgh”] is probably the crowning achievement of the work we’ve done so far.”
But to undertake the life of Hesburgh — the life of a man who holds 150 honorary degrees and received 16 presidential appointments — was no small task. Members of the “Hesburgh” production crew sifted through countless newspaper articles, personal letters and hours of film to gain insight to the life and work of Hesburgh, Creadon said.
“Part of our job was to introduce who he is and start from square one, but then the other part of the job was to take this very big very powerful story and condense it into a 100-minute film,” he said. “He was this heroic figure that was asked to do all of these different things all around the world, and quite honestly every time he was asked to do something he delivered, which is why people kept calling.”
Framing Hesburgh in a way that did justice to his dynamic character required a thorough knowledge of both his public and private life, Creadon said. Despite this, Creadon said he decided not to read Hesburgh’s autobiography, “God, Country, Notre Dame,” prior to making the film.
“I didn’t want to get a very specific narrative into my head when we were starting, I didn’t want that,” he said. “Otherwise it’s hard to get that out of your head if you take that approach, so I was looking elsewhere for the stories.”
In order to discover Hesburgh the man — not just Hesburgh the University President and advisor to positions of great authority — Creadon said the production crew spent significant time speaking with his close friends, caretakers and family.
“Those are some of the best interviews in the movie because you realize that despite the fact that he was dealing with so many weighty and lofty issues and dealing with so many famous and powerful people, he had such a nice way with the people within his inner circle,” Creadon said. “You want to walk away not just understanding the dates and the factual information — you want to understand what made him tick. That part of the story was every bit as important as the conversations he had in the White House and the times that he spent with Martin Luther King.”
From these interviews with those close to Hesburgh emerged a man of confidence, kindness and integrity. Creadon said Hesburgh’s strong leadership provides a model for a society and culture experiencing what he calls a “crisis of leadership.”
“Anyone who’s looking to vote in 2020 and is trying to imagine or reimagine what really good leadership looks like, this film is a great starting point,” he said. “I would love for people to walk out of the theaters being convinced that there’s a better way to lead, there’s a better way to move the country forward than just sort of shouting at each other and not trusting each other and not taking the time to get to know our adversaries.”