Film review: “Paterno” (2018)

“Paterno” (2018)



Running Time: 105 minutes

Written by: Debora Cahn & John C. Richards

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Featuring: Al Pacino, Riley Keough, Kathy Baker, Greg Grunberg, Annie Parisse

Sara GanimUh, I’m sorry. You said… 1976?”

Movies about sports teams or personalities are a dime a dozen, every year in many formats they are released, normally very tightly controlled affairs, following familiar tropes, normally either about underdogs or legacy teams, coaches or players of importance to that relative sport. Of course one the most successful as well as sequelised is “Rocky” (1976) which was not only an underdog story but also was set in a realistic world with a somewhat realistic conclusion, it was about the start of a career that would last five decades and is still going strong which can be seen with the release of this years “Creed 2” (2018). Now we have a different kind of sports movie, one that is built around one of the more terrifying and destructive scandals in US sports history, that is the Penn State sexual abuse scandal that not only destroyed the football programme but ended many legendary careers, including then Coach Joe Paterno who is the titular character in this new HBO film directed by Barry Levinson and featuring Al Pacino in a devastating character study, which must be viewed  as the highlight of this new film. Going into this film I was not sure what to expect, in fact it answers few questions about the actual scandal, or lay the blame or the responsibility at Paterno’s feet. Paterno was in his seventies when these events were brought to light, so his tenure was coming to an end, he was never asked any real questions, in fact he died not long after the scandal broke which is itself a crime as he would have known more than he ever admitted. In fact it was later proven that Paterno did know more, had known more for years but did very little to bring these crimes to any real authority which means there are still victims who will never be acknowledged or make the College pay for these misdeeds.

No matter how well “Paterno” the movie covers what occurred at Penn State, or the actual culpability that Joe Paterno had there is no doubt that this is a well produced movie that covers a snapshot of the time period that the entire scandal or events took place over, that is the movies strength. It does not bite off more than it can chew in terms of narrative although possibly the same thing cannot be said in terms of the actual plot. What it sets out to do is to take for granted the greatness of the ‘Coach’ as just that, a coach who became the most successful college coach of all time, his tenure and shadow was large, his success started in 1960s, lasting until 2010. The movie does seem to ask the question of the audience, does all the ‘good’ work done over decades fall away because of the despicable acts of others? Of course as the plot gives way to the narrative it becomes obvious that both of these things are intertwined with revelations being made right to the closing credits which speak to not only the institutional corruption of Penn but to Paterno’s role in looking the other way for almost his entire tenure.

“Paterno” has two superstars in its ranks, they are actor Al Pacino and director Barry Levinson, who have both worked together before as well as being legends and Oscar winners in their earlier lives. Levinson who made his name as a Baltimore native put that city on the map as a place that is full of all kinds of stories, he has made both movies and television shows being partly responsible for the kind of stories we now see nightly on the small screen with his ahead of the curve “Homicide: Life in the Street” (1993-1999). Lately as he has gotten older he has turned his hand to directing television movies in particular “You don’t know Jack” (2010), “The Wizard of Lies” (2017) and now “Paterno”. Say what you will about the subject matter of each of these, a loose trilogy, there is no argument with the skill, the actual subjects and the performances he is able to illicit from his leads. Levinson here does what he has always done, that is take a story and let his actors tell it in their own way. With Pacino, not the most obvious choice, he has struck gold – if the best this movie does is to remind audiences what can happen in a closed group where vulnerabilities are exposed then it has executed its job, like his previous HBO films it is a service to all involved.

“Paterno” centers on Penn State’s Joe Paterno (played by Al Pacino) in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal. After becoming the winningest coach in college football history, Paterno’s legacy is challenged and he is forced to face questions of institutional failure in regard to the victims.

Don’t let this movie fool you, even though there are some terrific performances, most notably from rising star Riley Keough as well as veteran Kathy Baker, this is most definitely the Al Pacino show. I write this not as a dis on his star power but as a comment related to his talent that when he needs to, is one of the greatest screen actors ever. This movie is a lesson in building a character from the ground up, showing audiences the type of person Paterno was at the end of his life as well as what he had to lose when his back was against the wall. Pacino has to visually and verbally show an audience who Paterno is, with no warm up, no flashbacks back to childhood, just who he was then, it is a credit to him how he is able to do this. Not only that but in this performance, like his other great ones he jettisons all the ‘Pacino’ ticks, facial expressions, verbal queues and other trope laden performance elements we have grown to witness over the past three decades. If there was ever a performance worthy of accolades and awards, then this is it; Pacino is stunning unlike many performances of recent years. The other two standouts are the previously mentioned Riley Keough and Kathy Baker as a reporter who broke the molestation story and Sue Paterno who supports her husband through to the end of his life. Both actors are worthy foils to Pacino who offer something unique in opposition of his performance, they are both strong determined women who want to know the truth but are at the same time terrified as to the ramifications if it is all real, as well as the damage will do to Penn as well as Joe himself. These are fine lines for actors to walk so as to be believable but not pander to how the real people would like to be portrayed.

In terms of the narrative this movie is bookended by Paterno’s stay in hospital where he eventually died of cancer, but the meat of the plot takes place over a period of a week as we witness the molestation story come to light. It is a credit to the director that he begins the movie with Paterno obviously suffering from cancer where as an audience we have sympathy for him, a beloved figure laid low. As the movie moves on and elements of what was known about the crimes come to the fore there is a certain loss of innocence as we are let in on secrets that others in the story are not aware of, which reaches its nadir in the final moments of the movie where reporter Sara Ganim receives a call from a victim that goes back five decades, at this point any sympathies for anyone involved at Penn should go away very quickly as the size of the offending becomes obvious, a frightening reality.

I have to admit to not really looking forward to this movie, I find the subject matter upsetting as I have first hand knowledge of situations similar to the ones that went on at Penn. In saying that this is a timely reminder that making idols out of people that are coaches, teachers, priests or anyoe else that you can never truly know is a mistake. Human nature is such that we always want to protect ourselves as well as situations that we think we know or we think are above the law. The Penn State crimes are proof as well as reminder that we must question places that are cut off from reality as well as places that control of children which can lead to treatment we would not stand for in other places. “Paterno” is a cautionary story that should be seen to be believed as well as a warning to families about what is important and who is important.

“Paterno” is available now on HBO.