"This was a crime involving children, so why the hell is anyone talking about Joe Paterno?"
Growing up in Pennsylvania, my father despised Joe Paterno – the subject of Barry Levinson and HBO's feature length original film, Paterno – because he "never trusted him." The gnomish Italian-American football coach barked out plays with a shrill squawk, as he stalked the sidelines of Happy Valley's Beaver Stadium. Yet while my dad's incredulousness regarding the incredibly successful shot-caller – who'd been captain of the massive state college's program since 1966 – was certainly fueled by his intense loyalty to Western PA teams and institutions (being the product of Steel City will do that to you), he was actively distrustful of Paterno because he believed the coach held himself up as this holier than thou "molder of men"; an untouchable bastion of moral righteousness that was too clean to be true. "You never trust anyone who says they’ve never done anything wrong," he'd tell me over breakfast, before folding the sports section in two and moving on to whatever interested him next in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Turns out my dad was unfortunately very astute in his assumption, as Paterno was eventually fired from his position as head football coach at Penn State, amidst a flurry of sexual abuse charges aimed at Jerry Sandusky – a former assistant who'd left the program in 1999. Like Paterno, Sandusky owned a reputation in State College, PA as being "a good man", who helped fund The Second Mile in 1977, a non-profit charity serving Pennsylvania's underprivileged and at-risk youth. From that time until his retirement (and afterwards), Sandusky worked closely with many boys from the foundation, taking them on tours of the stadium and facilities. On these occasions, he’d also sexually assault these minors in the showers. In 2011, following a two-year grand jury investigation, Sandusky was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse of young boys over a 15-year period. On June 22, 2012, Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts and sentenced 30 to 60 years in Supermax prison.
This façade of moral superiority seems to be what Levinson – not to mention screenwriters Debora Kahn and John C. Richards – are interested in, as well. Paterno opens in media res, as Penn State battles Illinois University. It's the fourth quarter, and everyone in Beaver Stadium is on their feet, and for good reason. If the Nittany Lions prevail, JoePa will earn his 409th win, breaking the Division I record previously held by Grambling legend Eddie Robinson. However, Paterno (played here by Al Pacino) is up in the booth, unable to join his team on the sidelines due to hip surgery that's keeping the 84-year-old NCAA legend confined to a chair. A legion of lackeys make sure that no photographers snap any pictures of the diminutive coach, forcing cameramen to delete their rolls, should they be spotted aiming their lenses anywhere but the field or the crowd. Without even delivering an order (or really being fully cognizant that it's occurring), JoePa has a near despotic stranglehold on his own image, protected by zealots who look to him like a God.
My friend's grandmother worked at a quaint Kentucky butcher's shop until she was 87. One day, she fell and dislocated her shoulder, and had to retire from the local business, where she'd been keeping the same shifts since 1972. Six months later, “Mamaw” was dead, peacefully discovered in her bed one morning by the cleaning lady who came twice a week. Work is what kept her going. Had he not been removed from PSU by its Board of Trustees in 2011, one could definitely imagine Paterno either keeling over on the sidelines, or quietly expiring in the booth between play calls, one of his assistants signaling the medics after it was already too late. This is how Pacino chooses to play JoePa, as well: the consummate professional, consumed by nothing but football and the principle to help "these young people" develop into well-rounded individuals. While the actor's trademark gruffness is certainly present and accounted for, he's also very specifically muted. Though JoePa’s obviously still a very capable coach, there's a confusion that sometimes clouds Pacino's eyes, as we can see age catching up with his version of Paterno's faculties, a visible decay that will later cause us to question whether he should've remained in his very visible position for as long as he did.
One individual who's not only questioning Paterno's competency, but the entire campus leadership's, is Patriot reporter Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), whose coverage of Sandusky's history of abuse has been swept under the rug by a community who doesn't want to believe that their idols could be tarnished in any way, shape or form. Working closely with Aaron Fisher (Benjamin Cook) – the notorious "Victim 1", who'd be harassed and beaten following his story coming out – Sara wants to expose this conspiracy of silence, and if that means tearing down the bronzed statue of Paterno in front of Beaver Stadium (which hails the coach as a "humanitarian" above all else), so be it. Lies are lies, regardless of who tells them. Four days after Paterno's 409th victory, Sandusky – whose presence is played on the picture's peripheral by a ghoulish, grinning Jim Johnson – is arrested and charged, placing Sara and her story in the national spotlight. Over the next week, Paterno is fired, and the Penn State campus is transformed into a veritable war zone, as this bastion of goodness is revealed to be nothing more than a dilapidated portico, used to cover up a monster's crimes for almost three decades.
As a motion picture, Paterno is at odds with itself – playing both as a chamber piece character study and a Spotlight-style investigative journalism procedural – never really finding its true footing. As Paterno is holed up in his suburban home, anxiously trying to study up for his next game against Nebraska while his family and colleagues swirl around him, desperately trying to figure out what to do – Levinson seems fascinated by the idea of this celebrity becoming a prisoner of his own ideals. "It's a bad idea," Pacino's Paterno barks, every time Scott (Greg Grunberg) – JoePa's lawyer son - keeps "badgering" him to issue a statement. All the while, the coach's wife, Sue (Kathy Baker), and daughter Mary Kay (Annie Parisse) wonder aloud if the husband/father knew about Jerry's appetites the whole time, as he'd been allowed to watch and play with their children on numerous occasions. This obviously proves Joe didn’t know about Jerry. How could he have and still let this happen?
Yet JoePa isn't the only high profile member of Penn State that faces charges, as athletic director Tim Curley (Steve Coulter) and university president Gary Schultz – whom Paterno reported the crime to after assistant Mike McQueary (Darren Goldstein) told coach that he saw Sandusky anally raping a boy in the shower – failed to act accordingly. They claim to be have been operating in the best interests of PSU at the time, but that was the problem. Levinson's film does a really incredible job of detailing how this crime occurred in a rather intense vacuum, the safety of children placed second to the upholding of an institution’s image.
Penn State had fostered an entire culture – both economic and social – around the sport of football, which came with its own false idols. When these atrocities occurred, not only was justice not served, it was actually shouted down when Sandusky was arrested and Paterno was fired. In the most harrowing sequence of Levinson's film, Sara navigates literal riots that broke out when news of Paterno's dismissal broke, angry students and fans screaming at the top of their lungs that this could've never happened inside their beloved program. When the reporter asks if a witness will go on record as believing Fisher's accusations, she scoffs and responds, "I don't want to be killed in my bed tonight."
As strange as this is to say, the best thing Paterno does is accurately present the conflicting swirl of emotions that erupted in Pennsylvania during and after this scandal. Anybody who proudly wore blue and white put their jerseys away in shame, or defiantly displayed them, as if daring anyone to challenge their belief that Joe Paterno did nothing wrong. The phrases that drove my own father crazy for years were again trotted out as defenses for his behavior. He couldn't have known. He's a good man.
Nevertheless, Paterno doesn't give any clear cut answers, as it's also made rather clear that this is an old man we're dealing with, whose own memory was failing, and who may have bought into his own hype a little too much. Seventy-four days after the scandal broke, stripping Paterno of any and all glory, the tarnished icon passed on after a short bout with lung cancer, while the statue made in his likeness was torn down the following year. The veil of "goodness" that allowed Jerry Sandusky's crimes to go on unreported – as the final scene in Paterno hints, maybe even longer than any of us knew – was forcefully lifted, taking JoePa with it, guilt perhaps manifesting itself in the form of a terminal tumor.
That’s why we need to talk about Joe Paterno (and men like him). He was Penn State, and that was the problem.
Paterno is available now on HBO and the channel's premium streaming services.