For decades, filmmakers have turned to Al Pacino when they’ve wanted a galvanic leading man — a declaimer, a pop-top. But as the title character in the HBO movie Paterno, the actor barely speaks, and when he does it’s in monosyllables, with tiny shrugs and eyes fixed on the ground. For 61 years, Joe Paterno coached football at Penn State, 46 of them as head coach, but the figure onscreen is neither the dominating, sometimes querulous, often cantankerous figure we watched in press conferences nor the firm moralist who guided his players on and off the field. The movie’s focus is the few weeks in 2011 before and after allegations broke that Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s former defensive coordinator, had sexually abused boys in and around college sports facilities — and that Paterno had been informed but did nothing beyond passing the buck to PSU officials Tim Curley and Gary Schultz. This is Paterno’s bitter end.
Paterno’s makers, director Barry Levinson and writers Debora Cahn and John C. Richards, have a risky idea that mostly pays off: They’ve constructed their film around a vacuum. It’s framed as a flashback of the 84-year-old Paterno’s memories as he’s lying in an MRI scanner tube, being doubly exposed. Faced with the allegations against Sandusky, Paterno goes deep into himself. He refuses for days even to read the formal charges, insisting that he has to focus on the coming game against Nebraska. (He seems insane.) Queried by family members (the very fine Kathy Baker as his wife, Greg Grunberg and Larry Mitchell his sons, and Annie Parisse his daughter), Paterno insists that Mike McQueary, the man who reported seeing Sandusky with a child, didn’t know what he saw and that Paterno himself reported it to Curley and Schultz. Pacino has been appended with a suitable schnoz and mostly disappears into the part. With his face half-shrouded in darkness, he looks gnomish. Sometimes he opens and closes his mouth like a slowly suffocating fish.
Levinson whips up a lot of activity around his nearly still center, early on rivaling Oliver Stone in Any Given Sunday (featuring Pacino as a more dynamic coach) for smash cuts and TV-talking-head inserts. Much of Paterno focuses on Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), who would win a Pulitzer for breaking the story and served as a sensitive liaison between the public and the boy, Aaron Fisher (Ben Cook), whose complaint finally (after three years) led to charges against Sandusky. It’s through her eyes that we see the hostility of so many Penn State students, who show up at Paterno’s house, chanting “Joe Pa!” and riot when the coach is fired.
Some of the hostile student encounters feel shoehorned in, and a scene in which teens chase Fisher, shouting “Faggot!” is painfully clunky. The filmmakers, erring on the side of caution, miss one obvious source of drama. They keep Sandusky almost entirely out of the movie. No one even alludes to the fact that Paterno didn’t like his popular, sociable former assistant coach, who for a while looked like Paterno’s successor. Did Paterno say nothing for fear he would look as if he were sabotaging a rival? Who knows, really?
That’s the downside to making your protagonist semi-mute and depriving him of a revelatory final scene. But the upside, I think, is worth it. The subject of Paterno isn’t venality. It isn’t even — despite the behavior of PSU officials — the obstruction of justice that allowed a sexual predator to operate for years. It’s something more difficult to capture but maybe more important to reckon with. The potential crimes of Jerry Sandusky were simply outside Paterno’s frame of reference. Their momentousness didn’t register. He was able, like so many people in power, to hear the rumors and go on, barely troubled, about his business. It’s his shrunkenness that’s the cautionary tale.
*This article appears in the April 2, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!