Barry Levinson seems to have found a home at HBO, the television network premiering his previous film The Wizard of Lies, a film about the fall of businessman Bernie Madoff. His newest, Paterno, premiered on the network earlier this month and tells a thematically similar story- the fall from grace of a powerful man, Penn State’s beloved football head coach Joe Paterno (Al Pacino), in light of the Jerry Sandusky (Jim Johnson) sexual abuse case. While Paterno’s involvement, if any, in concealing Sandusky’s crimes has not been made entirely clear, Levinson’s film explores what impact the Sandusky case has to the legacy of the winningest coach in Division I football history.
Levinson frames his story with the experience of Paterno receiving an MRI (after which he would be informed of his diagnosis of lung cancer). While he is being scanned, he recalls the day Penn State won its 409th win during his career and the tumultuous week that followed after being informed of the allegations against Jerry Sandusky. Levinson replicates the anticipation of a great win through the booming sound from the band, crowd, and film score during the game and Paterno’s presence is felt even from the coaching box as he makes a key decision late in the game resulting in victory. Pacino mimics well both the mannerisms and voice of Joe Paterno through his role, helping craft a sympathetic, not sentimental, look at Paterno’s final days as a college football coach.
Pacino’s Paterno is a simple, kind man whose intense self-focus becomes the key factor that undermines his career. He is credited as being a great supportive force to his athletes, both on and off the field. To be a Penn State football player is not just to be talented in football: it is to succeed in the classroom and to receive the tools necessary to succeed in life whether or not the NFL is in one’s future. He is beloved. “Joe Paterno is Penn State” we overhear a student declare. To accuse Sandusky of sexual crimes, regardless of the fact he was guilty, is an attack on Penn State and, by default, on Joe Paterno.
Outside of the football field and his athletes, Paterno cares little. The gravity of the accusations against Sandusky is lost on no one in his immediate circle but him. After all, he did report Sandusky to the university after being informed of Sandusky’s exploits by an assistant coach. He did his legal duty. Paterno is reluctant to read about the accusations, his focus intently on the television or on the field to prepare for potential win #410. His life is one of comfort, surrounded by admirers and supporters. It isn’t until his name is brought up by the media- that he could’ve had some involvement in covering up Sandusky’s perversions- that he starts to realize he’ll have to think about something else other than football and the reality of the situation, plus a pinch of melancholy, settles in.
As rumors swirl over Paterno’s potential involvement, and moreover his job security, a mob of students assemble outside his house, chanting his name and demanding reassurance from JoePa himself. When Paterno is fired as a coach, he finally confronts the students and speaks words of kindness that come off as empty platitudes to the enraged crowd. He tells them to pray for the victims, go home and study, and continue to focus on themselves and their success at Penn State. The fact that his words do little to stifle the explosiveness of the students’ protests illustrates just how out of touch and over his head he is in light of the Sandusky accusations.
All the while the journalist who broke the Sandusky story, Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), scuffles from place to place, seeking any insights that can be gained from those at Penn State and from the first victim who spoke up against Sandusky, Aaron Fisher (Ben Cook). Given that the film is titled Paterno, the film revolves around Paterno and everyone else, Sara and Aaron included, are relegated to a secondary role, echoing Levinson’s portrayal of Paterno as an intensely self-focused man. Sara’s personal response to the Sandusky case and the scrutiny against her for ‘destroying Penn State’ isn’t delved into and Aaron, unfortunately, does not have much of a role in the film besides suffering after he speaks up against Sandusky. He is terrorized by fellow students and is seemingly present in the film only to tick off a few checks on the “what to mention when talking about sexual assault” checklist (‘people won’t believe you’, ‘you will be threatened’, etc). Nonetheless, Levinson captures how perturbed Aaron is throughout the whole experience and his unease, as well as graphic descriptions of Sandusky’s perversions read from the paper and court filings, cast a sense of dread over the film. This dread strengthens as we know that the Sandusky case is not an anomaly. Many, many cases of mass sexual assault have come to light in the past few years.
As a whole, Paterno is a timely film directly following #MeToo and incendiary criticisms of mass media and journalism. Relating to the film’s lead, Paterno acts as a warning to those in power about focusing too much on themselves and not on others. A warning to those who would avoid doing anything that would potentially disrupt their comfortable life- like drawing attention early on to Sandusky- only to have it disrupted later in grand fashion.
The question of what to make of Paterno’s legacy is ultimately one of the most pressing questions that Levinson seeks to explore in his film. Depending on what course of events you believe took place and what amount of responsibility should’ve been placed on Paterno, it can be seen as a downright tragedy that Paterno’s late career took this trajectory. Levinson grants sympathy to this reading all up until a bombshell of an ending. The closing of Paterno takes away from Levinson’s portrayal of the coach and it is a pity that this final revelation was not explored in the film since it is of utmost important to Paterno’s image. The film, as a result, feels unfinished. Paterno spends a little over an hour and a half crafting how Paterno’s role, if any, in the Sandusky case should be perceived only to fundamentally question the role it determines.