There’s a great scene that occurs about an hour into HBO’s latest original film, Paterno.
Joe Paterno (Al Pacino), the legendary and aging Penn State football coach, has been accused of knowing and failing to report that one of his former assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky (Jim Johnson), was a pedophile. With Paterno and his family plotting out strategy behind closed doors, a group of Penn State students gather outside of the Paterno home. Instead of being angry that children were molested at their college, they’ve come to show their support for Paterno.
“JOE PATERNO!” they chant.
Scott Paterno (Greg Grunberg) hears the chants. Scott is a lawyer and appears to be the only member of the Paterno family to truly understand the seriousness of the accusations. Scott steps outside.
“JOE PATERNO!” the crowd continues to chant.
Scott thanks them for their support but then says that they also need to show the same support to all of Sandusky’s victims…
“JOE PATERNO!” the chant continues.
Struggling to be heard, Scott again asks them to remember that the children molested by Sandusky are the ones who need the most support…
Suddenly, the chant changes. “SCOTT PATERNO!” the crowd starts to chant. It’s not because they’ve heard anything that Scott’s said. Instead, it’s because Scott’s a Paterno and, in the eyes of the crowd, that makes him royalty. As the crowd continues to chant his name, Scott gives up and reenters the house.
Paterno could have used more scenes like that, scenes that explicitly showed the danger of blind hero worship as opposed to just telling us about it. For the most part, Paterno feels like a well-written Wikipedia article. You can’t deny the skill with which the film was made but, at the same time, it’s difficult not to get frustrated by Paterno‘s refusal to really dig too far underneath the surface of the story.
Some of the problem is with the film’s structure. The film primarily takes place over the final six days of Paterno’s career. Paterno spends the majority of the film locked away in his house, passive aggressively avoiding the question of what he knew and when he knew it. His wife (Kathy Baker) and his other son, buffoonish Jay (Larry Mitchell), make excuses for him while Scott tries to get everyone to understand that the accusations aren’t just going to go away. This is the part of the Paterno story that, in most films, would be summed up by an end credits title card.
As a result, Paterno never really deals with why Joe Paterno not only didn’t report Sandusky but also apparently protected him and that, to be honest, is the most important and troubling part of the story. Since Sandusky is only briefly seen, we never get any insight into his relationship with Paterno and we never understand why Paterno would go to bat for an assistant who he, at one point, refers to as being “a pain in the ass.” Was Paterno truly clueless about what was happening or did he just think he could sweep it under the rug and nobody would say anything because he was Joe Paterno? Were Paterno’s actions the result of willful blindness or hubris? It’s not so much a problem that the film leaves certain questions unanswered as much as it’s a problem that the film itself doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with the answers.
When the film isn’t concentrating on the Paternos, it’s concentrating on the reporter, Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), who originally broke the story. However, these scenes are never quite as compelling as the film seems to think they are. Riley Keough, who was so great in American Honey, seems miscast here. For the most part. Sara seems to be there so that she can witness the Penn State students rioting and chanting, “Fuck the Media” after Paterno loses his job.
The best thing that Paterno has going for it is the lead performance of Al Pacino. Pacino plays Paterno as a man who is very comfortable with the routine that he’s built up for himself. His life revolves around Penn State, his team, and finally his own legend. When the Sandusky story first breaks, Paterno can’t understand why he even has to be concerned about it. He’s got a game against Nebraska coming up! Awkward even around his adoring family, Paterno only seems to be truly comfortable when he’s coaching. Pacino plays Paterno as a fragile and sickly man, a once ferocious lion brought down by a combination of cancer and scandal. When we first see him, Paterno is coaching his team to a record-setting victory and he seems like a larger-than-life figure. By the end of the movie, Paterno seems much smaller, a confused man who still can’t seem to bring himself to deal with why everyone is getting so upset. It’s a great performance in an uneven film.