HBO’s film doesn’t answer the lingering questions about the once beloved coach.
When it comes to creating a good biopic, there must be a balance between factual events and dramatized moments. Leaning towards the latter by way of an artistic license could ring false. On the other hand, unless the goal is to create a documentary, only relaying the facts could result in a dull film. Barry Levinson, the Academy Award-winning director, is certainly experienced in this sort of balancing act. His past films depicting the lives of well-known individuals are sound; he normally provides a compelling narrative. His latest film, HBO’s Paterno, seems to be the outlier though.
The film opens with Joe Paterno (Al Pacino) receiving a CT scan – he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer – as he recalls the last month or two of his life via a flashback. Time rewinds to October 29th, 2011 during the Penn/Illinois football game at Beaver Stadium. It was a big day for Pennsylvania; Paterno was on the verge of winning his 409th game as the head coach of Pennsylvania State University’s Nittany Lions. Everyone who was anyone at Penn State was in attendance, including Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, and Graham Spanier (Penn State’s Athletic Director, VP, and President, respectfully). Instead of the game though, they were more concerned with the coming indictment of the former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky.
From there, Levinson splits the focus between Joe Paterno and Sara Ganim, the Patriot-News reporter who broke the Sandusky story seven months prior. With Paterno, we get a snapshot of his life amid the scandal. The grand jury’s presentment is released, causing a stir in his household; his children are mortified, his wife becomes physically ill. With the consensus being that he knew more than he let on, reporters flocked to his home in hopes of getting a statement. To prepare him for what was coming, his son printed off a copy of the presentment for him to read. Joe didn’t much care for it though. He’d much rather watch football in preparation for an upcoming game against Nebraska. Things were a bit different with Sara. Life moved quickly after the presentment is released, her story blown up as major news outlets referenced the article. Continuing to cover the scandal proved difficult. People questioned her validity (to the point of being threatening) even after she interviewed Aaron Fisher, the first victim to publicly discuss his experiences with Sandusky.
Paterno has more than enough to produce a thought-provoking story. Presenting Joe Paterno’s fall from grace or Sara’s struggles to get the world to pay attention to her story is certainly worth penning a script. That said, trying to provide both perspectives simultaneously leaves each feeling slightly underdeveloped. Sara, for one, never really becomes a protagonist. She’s just a means of propping up history. For instance, her chats with Aaron and his mother, while tasteful, act as necessary filler. They help in staving off claims that the writers are insensitive but don’t bother to go beyond the surface. The way the film breezes through these scenes, it seems to say “yeah, we haven’t forgotten about the victims” instead of offering anything of value.
Sara Ganim is regulated to the sidelines despite her high amount of screen time. And again, that’s not to say that her involvement wasn’t worth delving into or that Riley Keough didn’t do a good job playing the reporter. It’s just that the heart of the story was always Paterno. That fact being obvious (considering the name of the film) makes the jumps to her character feel odd; if Levinson wasn’t going to explore things fully, why include Sara to the degree that he does?
Things aren’t fully fleshed out for Joe either. Remember, this is a snapshot. There’s no building to the scandal, something that would have given viewers who don’t know much about the man some clarity on why people treated him the way they did. Not only that, but most scenes ended before of any revelatory information was shared. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at first. The film sticks to the known facts whenever possible. And while Levinson offers up some dramatic exposition – like a fake reenactment used to show what was said in an email – he doesn’t stretch the truth in order to sell the story. Still, one would hope to learn a little more about what happened all those years ago. At the very least, we’d get to see a side of Joe that wasn’t depicted in documentaries or in the news. That’s not the case here.
I did get the sense that Levinson wanted to give the audience a nudge though. Instead of staying nonjudgmental, he occasionally offers a clue as to how he felt about the case. The scenes that centered on Joe are used to show how he didn’t understand his role in what went down. This is represented in how he responded to the allegations. He was reluctant to read the presentment, not because he doesn’t care about what happened, but because he’s the coach. His job was to get ready for the next game and let whoever handles such things handle them. This depiction doesn’t outright vilify Joe, but it does make him look bad; I couldn’t tell if Levinson wanted to show Joe Paterno as indifferent, inept, or what. There were certain parts that went beyond what has been shared or recorded publicly though. I won’t spoil what happens, other than to say that the film alludes to Joe possibly being aware of what was going on with Sandusky.
Paterno doesn’t answer the lingering questions about the once beloved coach, provide any insight into the scandal, or offer a means of evoking empathy for those affected. The plot’s structuring is odd and nothing’s fleshed out enough for the audience to derive anything significant. It is a somewhat, evenhanded dramatization of true events though (sans the bits towards the end). That, plus Al Pacino’s performance, makes Paterno worth a watch.