Directed by: Barry Levinson
Premise: Based on true events. Penn State football coach Joe Paterno (Al Pacino) is overcome by a scandal when a former assistant coach is arrested on numerous counts of child molestation.
What Works: The Penn State sexual abuse scandal rocked college football and the larger sports world. Former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on dozens of counts of sexually abusing children. In the course of the investigation it was revealed that head football coach Joe Paterno and others in the Penn State athletic department and the university administration knew about Sandusky’s crimes and did not notify law enforcement. The film Paterno is a dramatization of the fallout after news of the scandal broke and it is a very good example of what a dramatic adaptation of true life events can and should do. Documentaries are generally about the facts in the case but dramas are about capturing the human element. Paterno acts out the moral and ethical elements of this story and does so in a very interesting way. This film is not a heroic story. It is, in fact, the opposite. Paterno is about people realizing after the fact that they’ve been negligent and slowly coming to own their responsibility. This is a drama about crisis management and the institutional response to a disaster. In that respect, what Paterno does especially well is marrying systemic failure to personal responsibility. It also captures the passion surrounding college football and the way in which the spectacle and emotional investment of sports skews priorities and blinds people to the truth even when it is staring them in the face. Paterno includes some impressive performances including Riley Keough as reporter Sara Ganim and Ben Cook as one of Sandusky’s victims. They fill in some of the expository information but they also provide the film with a conscience. That’s especially true of Cook’s performance which puts the film in touch with the reality of Sandusky’s crimes and makes the fumbling of the university administration and the misplaced outrage of Penn State football fans all the more infuriating. The central performance of Paterno is provided by Al Pacino and it is the latest in an extraordinary late period in the actor’s career. As Paterno, Pacino captures the public persona of JoPa but also makes him a man of human dimensions. There is something subversive in this film as a story of corruption. It is a soft corruption, a willful ignorance to something repugnant and the impulse to shift blame onto others, and the exposure of that corruption swallows every other accomplishment of the man’s career and destroys his legacy. The film and Pacino’s performance capture that tragedy.
What Doesn’t: Paterno stumbles a bit in a way that is unique to films based on true stories. Viewers who closely followed the Penn State scandal probably won’t find much that’s new in Paterno. On the other hand, viewers who are not college football fans and aren’t familiar with Joe Paterno and his importance to the game might not grasp the broader magnitude of what happened. As its title implies, this film is about Joe Paterno and the story is narrowly focused on the weeks following Jerry Sandusky’s arrest. But there is a bigger context to this scandal in the way it reflects upon the Penn State community and the entirety of college sports. Paterno does its job as a drama but because of its specific focus the film misses some of the other parts of this story. Viewers ought to seek out the 2014 documentary Happy Valley which addresses the impact of the scandal on the Penn State campus and the surrounding community.
DVD extras: Featurettes.
Bottom Line: Paterno is a terrific drama with an extraordinary performance by Al Pacino. The film is complex and troubling but it may be most extraordinary in the way the filmmakers refuse to allow for redemption. It’s a tragedy that confronts the audience with our own culpability in systemic corruption.
Episode: #714 (September 2, 2018)