Paterno opens during an important football game as the 84-year-old Penn State coaching legend is going for a personal NCAA record in wins. The elderly team leader sits up high in a press box and not on the sidelines, plotting out the victory. He’s removed, but involved. It’s an allegory for what follows. This is the central question of the massive scandal that follows and the rendering of the subject’s legacy in the public view. How removed was Joe Paterno in the Jerry Sandusky saga? Or how involved was he?
The HBO effort marks the second collaboration of director Barry Levinson and leading man Al Pacino for the cable network. Their first was 2010’s You Don’t Know Jack, in which the Oscar winner played Dr. Kevorkian. Levinson also made last year’s The Wizard of Lies, which cast Robert De Niro as Ponzi scheme maker Bernie Madoff. That picture had some issues with its story structure and so does this.
The tale unfolds in November 2011 over a week’s period of time that feels like an eternity for those in Happy Valley. When former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with multiple accounts of child sexual abuse, the focus soon turns to what the iconic Paterno (Pacino) knew and when. It’s a startling turn of quick events that results in the coach’s dismissal, as well as others involved with the college.
Breaking the explosive story is local reporter Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), whose sordid tale is ignored for a bit. And then everyone in the world pays attention. It’s this work that would result in a Pulitzer for her and the downfall of a living and breathing institution. This journalistic expose is done in a setting where many of the Penn State faithful are in a haze and in denial about what’s happening. Many don’t want to believe Paterno could have done any wrong in failing to report his knowledge of Sandusky’s evil.
This plot line of the bravery of reporters and the victims to shed light on Sandusky’s crimes and the inability of university officials to do the right thing is the fascinating one. However, Paterno the movie spends most of its running time holed up in Paterno the man’s home as he’s in crisis control mode with his family and advisors.
It does provide Pacino an opportunity for a choice role, just as his other HBO projects have in the 21st century (both Jack and 2003’s Angels in America). He is successful in mimicking the look and mannerisms of the coach. Paterno is played as a man seemingly incapable of understanding the gravity of the unfolding storm around him. The same goes for many in State College.
There’s a remarkable sequence where people take to the streets to protest JoePa’s firing as Sara watches. She knows that she is largely responsible for their vitriol, but also instrumental in putting away a monster. A deeper dive into how that happened could have been intriguing. Paterno largely removes itself from that process while providing a slightly disappointing but well-acted experience from those involved.
**1/2 (out of four)