In Paterno, the new HBO film about Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, Al Pacino plays the title role with a quiet voice and small gestures. It’s a performance unlike many of the ones he is best known for, such as the cokehead gangster in Scarface (1983) or the feral cop in Heat (1995). For Paterno, Pacino sports big-framed, tinted glasses, and his large, sad eyes are almost obscured — it’s one way the actor communicates the regressive shame that overcame his real-life character.
Paterno, premiering April 7, retells the story of the scandal that broke in 2011 about the multiple sexual assaults Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky committed against young boys over decades. Sandusky is the villain of this piece, but he barely registers here: This film is about the culture of complicity that grew up around Sandusky’s crimes, primarily because no one wanted to tarnish or slow down the awe-inspiring triumphs that Paterno was scoring as the winningest coach in college football. It’s an unusual way to tell this story, but Pacino and director Barry Levinson pull it off, scoring their own, more low-key, triumph.
The script by Deborah Cahn and John C. Richards takes us along two tracks: how the Sandusky story was investigated and reported by Sara Ganim, a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot-News, and how the revelations affected Paterno and his family. Ganim is played by Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience, Logan Lucky) as a tough reporter who, while still in her 20s, is an already-hard-bitten woman: She’d been reporting on the Sandusky rumors for years without anyone paying much attention. (Ganim eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for this reporting.)
Once the national media gets involved, the insular college town is engulfed in the scandal. The Penn State area’s nickname — “Happy Valley” — became a bitter irony, and Levinson is great at sketching in the local culture. Paterno summons up the worship of “JoePa” that dominated State College, Pa., for a long time. Paterno and his family — including his wife, Sue, played by Kathy Baker, and his son Scott, played by Greg Grunberg — are overwhelmed by the depravity and long history of Sandusky’s crimes. Sandusky himself, played by Jim Johnson, remains pushed to the edges of this story, intentionally so: The focus is on the victims and the repercussions of Sandusky’s evil actions.
For Paterno, it means a forced reckoning with himself. This is the third HBO collaboration between Pacino and Levinson — Pacino was Jack Kevorkian in You Don’t Know Jack, and played the title role in Phil Spector, for which Levinson was executive producer. The pair work in concert here, Levinson frequently shooting Pacino in tight close-ups, to let us see Paterno’s internal struggles. Paterno was in his 80s when the scandal erupted, and his reactions are partly those of a confused old man. But the film also shows us Paterno owning his own guilt, going over his memories of working with Sandusky, trying to pin down where and how he might have stopped the coach, measuring how much blame he must take upon himself. It’s a very good performance in a very good film that avoids sensationalizing the crimes in order to explore pain on many levels.
Paterno airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.
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