Barry Levinson’s HBO film “Paterno” stars Al Pacino as celebrated Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, whose considerable career abruptly imploded in 2011 when one of his former assistant coaches was accused of raping boys, and university officials, including Paterno, were accused of systematically ignoring the crimes. “Paterno” is a somber, quietly dramatic and ultimately depressing foray into a moment that’s almost too upsetting to rehash, and seems further back in the old-news file than it really is.
Despite its resonance with the present-day zeal for revealing predators and supporting victims, “Paterno” (premiering Saturday) offers almost none of the catharsis or thematic energy that comes with TV’s recent fixation on sensational cases and scandals; the film seems caught in a pause of uncertainty, as if constantly asking: “Do we really have to go over this?”
Debora Cahn and John C. Richards’s screenplay winnows the story down almost entirely to the perspective of the title character and the swiftness with which his revered status vanished. Paterno, more lovingly referred to as “JoePa,” coached the Nittany Lions for more than six decades, with 45 years as head coach and a record number of wins. These days, anyone but his most loyal fans will more likely equate the late Paterno’s name with the arrest of his longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was charged with dozens of counts of sexual abuse of boys in the 1990s and 2000s — and is now serving 30 to 60 years in prison.
“Paterno,” it should be noted, is assiduously disinterested in Sandusky as a character (the actor who plays him, Jim Johnson, has next to no lines), perhaps wisely sensing that the movie is already difficult enough to watch as it is. Similarly, “Paterno” is not at all concerned with buttressing or restoring any of JoePa’s lost glory. A frustrating ambiguity runs through “Paterno,” never fully deploying its literary license to be clearer about what it believes its protagonist knew or didn’t know; only near the end does it strongly suggest that Paterno should have known, if only he’d had a better sense of the world around him.
Mostly it’s about the coach’s late-dawning that his last play in life is no longer about next week’s game. He has called the shots for so long, as one character notes, that an emperor complex has settled in. So resolute is JoePa’s certainty that he never saw Sandusky abusing boys that he refuses, for several days, to read the many detailed pages of a grand jury’s long indictment. “It’s got nothing to do with me,” he complains. “Truly, what does it have to do with me?”
“Paterno” marks Levinson and Pacino’s third collaboration on an HBO movie about complicated and vain men who find themselves colliding into a wall of justice; the actor starred previously as the controversial “suicide doctor” Jack Kevorkian in 2010 and then as second-degree murderer/pop-music impresario Phil Spector in 2013.
Pacino’s take on Paterno is the most effective performance of the three. When the film feels needlessly vague or remote, Pacino brings it back in with just a look or a sigh. There is true stoop-shouldered tragedy in Paterno’s inability to understand the seriousness of the accusations surrounding him — emphasized by the 84-year-old’s declining health and imminent death a couple months later.
While his loyal sons bicker, it’s the women in Paterno’s life (with fine performances from Kathy Baker as Joe’s wife, Sue, and Annie Parisse as his daughter, Mary Kay) who keep reminding everyone of the hideous nature of the crimes committed, and the responsibilities that JoePa had to act more quickly. “Stop talking about me like I’m dead,” Paterno pathetically bellows at his family. Soon they scramble to hire a crisis manager.
Parallel to its main narrative, “Paterno” briefly becomes another and perhaps more interesting kind of movie — one of those stirring “Spotlight”-style paeans to difficult journalism, told through the character of Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), a fresh-out-of-college reporter at the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa.
Keough, who gave such a steel-strong performance in the first season of Starz’s “The Girlfriend Experience,” is more than able to play the range of Ganim’s emotions as she determinedly pursues the Sandusky story well before it blows up nationally and suffers the disdain of her fellow Penn State alums. “She makes money by telling lies,” sneers one young man. “[If] she doesn’t tell a good lie, she doesn’t get a good paycheck.”
“Well, it must not be a good lie,” Ganim replies, “because it’s a tiny [expletive] paycheck.” (Spoiler alert: Ganim goes on to win a Pulitzer for her work.)
Instead of focusing more on the story’s hero (Ganim), Levinson sticks to the futile rage within House of Paterno. It’s possible, in Pacino’s nuanced performance of Paterno’s frailty and confusion, to find a reserve of fleeting sympathy for the man, who refused to resign and instead got fired. At the same time, it’s never possible to forget the horrors that happened where he ruled.
Paterno (1 hour 45 minutes) premieres Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.