Director Barry Levinson and star Al Pacino bring the Joe Paterno legacy into the #MeToo era in HBO’s riveting new drama.
When I mentioned screening HBO’s new drama Paterno to my father in law, he shared his personal experience with the famed Penn State coach. Several years ago, my father in law saw Paterno, affectionately referred to as JoePa by the Penn State faithful, dress down an assistant coach for what felt like 10 minutes during a game. The moment weighed so heavily on my father in law that he wrote JoePa a letter expressing his disappointment. Surprisingly, JoePa returned the correspondence, fully admitting that the event was a lapse in his own judgement. My father in law didn’t keep the letter, unfortunately. That’s a shame because it would have been nice to see JoePa own up to the moral implications of losing your temper like that during a public event. A public confession in his own hand.
That JoePa is nowhere to be seen in HBO’s Paterno.
The film explores the chaotic week following the child sex abuse charges levied against former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Rather than focus on the details of the case, director Barry Levinson and screenwriters Debora Cahn, John C. Richards, and David McKenna hone in on the scandal’s impact on Joe Paterno. What did he know? When did he know it? And if he knew, why didn’t he do more to stop it? The film gives a refreshing twist on abuse scandal narratives and resonates powerfully in the modern #MeToo era.
Directing with a vibrance and confidence not seen in years, Levinson opens the film with the infamous Penn State / Illinois football game that handed JoePa his record-breaking 409th win in NCAA Division 1 play. While the mechanics of the scene are traditional football tropes, Levinson smartly highlights Paterno’s isolation. Suffering from a hip injury received during practice, Paterno coaches the team from the press box, handing down play calls like a voice from God. He eschews the traditional halftime locker room inspirational speech. Even after the win, he sequesters himself in his home, pouring over footage of upcoming rival Nebraska as the Sandusky scandal erupts around him.
That seems to be part of the slant Levinson and team take on the legacy of JoePa. Despite the overwhelming adoration of the Penn State faithful, Paterno should probably have retired years before he was unceremoniously dumped by Penn State brass. He feels out of place in the world around him. He doesn’t understand the charges levied against Sandusky, even refusing to read the public indictment until midway the film.
Perhaps the most telling moment of Paterno lies in JoePa’s bewildered question, “What is sodomy?”
Is it possible that the great Joe Paterno was really that out of touch with the non-football world? The film certainly poses that question initially, but as it progresses, the narrative gradually evolves into one of JoePa’s willful ignorance of Sandusky’s criminal sexual appetites. Joe Paterno’s ultimate crime becomes one of complacency – aware of the buzz but choosing to focus instead on football. As Paterno documents JoePa’s sacking, students of Penn State riot and accuse the media narrative of unjustly blaming Paterno in the sex scandal. End to end, the film’s focus on one’s moral obligation during a legal crisis isn’t one we see frequently. Given the modern culture of sexual misconduct and political upheaval, Paterno emerges as a fascinating film that completely belongs to 2018.
Pacino’s turn as JoePa belongs in the pantheon of Great Al Pacino Performances. This isn’t the Scent of a Woman Pacino. This is the Angels in America Pacino. This is a subtle, quiet performance of a man staring down the end of his career (and life). The performance is all the more remarkable because it illustrates a once-powerful man so crippled by health and scandal that he can no longer defend himself. Pacino’s intimate choices on highlighting all the ways JoePa just gives up at the end are haunting and sharply observed.
Kathy Baker (Picket Fences) provides excellent support as Paterno’s wife, Sue. However, I did want more screen time from her. Much like Melissa Leo’s Lady Bird Johnson in All the Way, Baker nearly approaches window dressing status, not fully achieving it thanks to a few brief but wonderful scenes. Riley Keogh (The Girlfriend Experience) also provides a strong presence as the young Patriot-News Staff journalist who brings the Sandusky scandal to life. Her narrative, however, felt a bit underserved as I was never fully clear where she fell on the Paterno question. That is, until the very final scene which, honestly, could have carried the film another 15 minutes.
Paterno premieres at exactly the right time in our current #MeToo culture. It highlights the horrors of complacency and, through JoePa’s turning a blind eye, the implications of eschewing your moral obligation to what is right. JoePa was rightly celebrated for equating athletics and academics. Still, his downfall comes at his willful ignorance or unwillingness to recognize the signs of danger in suspect behavior. In an era where once-silent voices are now freely expressed, Paterno provides an excellent and well timed cautionary tale on the dangers of ignoring those voices. JoePa’s downfall becomes the example of how no one should ever turn a blind eye again.
Paterno premieres Saturday, April 7, at 8 p.m. on HBO.