REVIEW: Paterno (2018)

Release Poster – HBO Films

The following is a review of HBO Films’ Paterno — Directed by Barry Levinson.

HBO Film’s Paterno is a drama about the true story of the Jerry Sandusky-sex abuse cover-up, which found legendary head coach Joe Paterno (played by Al Pacino) in the spotlight as he failed to properly report and follow-up on the serious allegations.

“You choose your words, you choose your reality. How many people used words that allowed other people to understand crimes against children as what knuckleheads do in locker rooms?” actor Peter Jacobson (playing the former executive editor of The Patriots-News, David Newhouse) says to Riley Keough, who plays journalist Sara Ganim, in the film. And it was that line of dialogue in HBO Films’ excellent drama Paterno that, to me, best encapsulated one of the ways in which this film can be read in the age of the Me Too-movement.

It is a scene which will likely also bring viewers’ minds to President Donald Trump’s remarks about groping and kissing women made in a conversation with Billy Bush, the former Access Hollywood-correspondent. In a statement, Trump referred to his remarks as ‘locker room banter,’ and, in Paterno, Jacobson’s character rejects the notion that what had happened in the Sandusky-case was simply ‘horsing around.’

This is not at all meant to say that this film offers thought-provoking commentary on these cases, but rather to note that this film does not exist in a vacuum and that Levinson’s Paterno, in spite of the title, becomes something different than I expected by focusing on both the aging titular character and the up-and-coming new voice in journalism getting new exposure as her case becomes the focus of a nation. It does, perhaps, in moments, begin to look like a Spotlight for the age of the Me Too-movement, even though to say that would definitely be giving it too much credit.

However, what is abundantly clear here is the effective way Levinson juxtaposes the arcs of Joe Paterno and Sara Ganim. While Ganim is getting great exposure and undergoing great pressure as she is thrust upon the national stage and making a name for herself in the process, Joe Paterno is going through the harshest days of his life as his family and his legacy is torn apart in a matter of days. A beginning and an end.

But, in the film, Paterno — played excellently by Al Pacino — seems oblivious, absent-minded, and, more than anything else, he feels — and comes across as — very old. As the aging coach starts to learn more and more about what exactly is happening, he turns inward and naively looks to nothing but football. However, this is also a case wherein he purposefully ignores the case, and once he does take an interest in it he goes from being clueless to being guilt-ridden but incapable of addressing the requests for recontextualization.

Levinson does a terrific job of painting him as an old bystander — an overseer with tunnel vision — while the rest of his family is fighting his battles. While he feels his achievements turning to dust, his family barks back at those who, from their perspective, have wronged him. Pacino plays it all perfectly, and he comes across as a man who is too old to grasp the severity of the situation as his mind is too hazy. Vacant stares dominate many of Pacino’s scenes as the character fumbles for the right thing to say and anything at all to hold onto in his memory.

While the film does handle Ganim and the Paterno family quite well, I question the decision to have Sandusky as nothing more than a background player — an oft-discussed ‘ghost’ lost in the mind of the eponymous coach. You also get the sense that this story perhaps deserves to be more encompassing than it is — that the film perhaps feels incomplete — but the film does end on a chilling note. That, of course, does not excuse the fact that it does feel like the film jumps around a bit too rapidly for my liking, even though the film only really covers a few days.

All in all, HBO Films’ Paterno — from seasoned director Barry Levinson — is a solid attempt at retelling a story of a fall from grace and the uncovering of the events that knocked the coach off a piedestal. From his safe stadium coaching booth the revered coach could oversee his football empire, but it is what he overlooked — or perhaps chose to cover for — that is of greater importance here.

7.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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