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Few American sports heroes have fallen from grace as dramatically or as quickly as Joe Paterno did. On the last Saturday in October 2011, JoePa, as he was affectionately known to everyone on the Penn State University campus in Happy Valley, secured his 409th victory as the coach of the Nittany Lions, making him the winningest coach in college football history. Six days later, a grand jury indicted his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky on 40 counts of child sex abuse, a pattern of predatory behavior that spanned at least two decades and included the rape and harassment of boys as young as eight years old.
The following week, as the enraging institutional failures that allowed Sandusky’s conduct to go unpoliced were revealed, Paterno was fired by the university’s board of trustees. Two months later, due to complications from lung cancer, JoePa died at the age of 85.
It’s that turbulent period that the new HBO film Paterno, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Al Pacino, takes as its subject, more so than even the titular coach or the sex scandal that accelerated his downfall and tainted his legacy. At times, the film does a fine job handling extremely upsetting material, but for the most part it’s plagued by a problem of perspective, constantly unsure what kind of film it wants to be. With a growly, irascible Pacino at his scenery-chewing best, it’s willed in biopic territory. That’d be quite alright if Levinson also didn’t want Paterno to be a journalism movie, a sports movie and a family drama. To an extent, Levinson could have reconciled these disparate threads, but he chose instead to weave them each into the film’s tapestry, and the stitching shows.
Paterno opens first on JoePa in a CT scanner, an odd framing device that positions the rest of the movie as a series of near-death flashbacks. In the first of them, a very Any Given Sunday-style montage, we see that all-important 409th win, with the coach filmed up high in a press box managing the game via headset (a 2008 hip replacement forced Paterno to coach from a box instead of on the field). As calls are delivered down an assembly line of assistant coaches to the players on the field, Paterno’s framed as some kind of remote overlord, almost implicitly calling into question the ignorance he’ll feign as the Sandusky scandal unfurls. Though Levinson neither indicts nor exonerates his subject, there’s a constant focus on Paterno’s titanic stature on campus, suggesting a man too powerful and influential to have known as little as he lets on.
Shortly thereafter the focus shifts to the Patriot-News, where a young reporter and Penn State alum named Sara Ganim, played by Riley Keough, is chasing the story. Keough does a nice job communicating both a rookie journalist’s intrepid pursuit of a big scoop and her apprehensions about implicating a campus hero in the scandal, but her function in the film is lazily conceived, like All the President’s Men had Woodward and Bernstein spent the movie idling outside the White House.
The White House here is Paterno’s home in Happy Valley, where he spends much of the film either a) watching football with pencil and paper in hand or b) shrugging off questions from his wife Sue (an underused Kathy Baker) and three children. In his circumscribed football-centric haze, Paterno avoids reading the grand jury indictment – “When am I gonna read it?” he says incredulously at practice – and seems genuinely unaware why the story even involves him. For the most part, though, Levinson resorts to gimmicky film-making tactics – rickety hallway-length tracking shots; exposition via news clips; loud, obtrusive droning nosies that scream “inner turmoil” – to show us the swiftness with which Paterno’s insulated world crumbles.
As Paterno’s disillusioned kids will find out, their father knew quite a bit about the abuse and simply turned a blind eye to it, going so far as to give a speech at a benefit for Sandusky’s charity The Second Mile, which served underprivileged youth and was also where Sandusky scoped out children to molest.
Watching Paterno’s family slowly come into the light about their father’s possibly criminal negligence is one of the film’s more interesting elements. This, after all, is a story about cognitive dissonance in the face of a moral outrage, and how inaction is one hell of a self-perpetuating drug. But that, too, is a rather half-baked through-line, culminating in a scene near the end of the film where Sue recalls her husband allowing their young children to swim in the pool with Sandusky. “You couldn’t have known,” she says, “or you wouldn’t have let them go in the pool with him.”
Levinson, who uses heavy-handed stylization as a crutch where his film lacks focus, follows this up with a strange slow-motion shot of Paterno jumping in a pool, the camera moving schizophrenically from one child to the next, with Sandusky creepily lurking in the background. You think it’s the end of the movie, what with all the symbolism, but it isn’t quite. Instead, Levinson goes back to Ganim, who manages to be the hero of a movie in which her heroic work is sadly glossed over.
- Paterno airs in the US on HBO on 7 April and in the UK at a later date
Source: The Guardian
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