Joe Paterno’s rapid fall from grace during his final year can be regarded as a cautionary tale about how one’s achievements of lifetime can be so quickly tarnished and ruined by a single scandal. He dedicated himself to his profession for more than 60 years as establishing his legendary status, but, alas, everything fell down as he suddenly found himself getting associated with a shocking case of child sex abuse, and his legacy has been always remembered along with that heinous crime.
Closely looking into what happened around Paterno during that eventful week of November 2011, HBO movie “Paterno” tries to give us some glimpses into his state of mind during that period, and the result is a modest but fascinating drama with several good things to admire. Although it is rather ambiguous about how much Paterno was responsible for the cover-up of many incidents of child sex abuse which were committed by one of his close associates, the movie is still engaging as intensely focusing on the mounting tension and pressure on Paterno and others around him, and it is also anchored well by the solid lead performance from one of the great actors in our time.
Paterno in the film is played by Al Pacino, and the movie opens with Paterno going through a medical examination for his serious health condition. As he is being examined by an MRI machine, his mind goes back to when he and many others around him were virtually on the top of the world on October 29th, 2011. On that day, he won his 409th game as the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions football team, and this record-breaking victory was certainly another moment of glory to be added to the long, illustrious sports career of this aging but feisty coach who was soon going to have his 85th birthday.
However, there was a very big trouble coming to not only him and his team but also the Penn State University. Not long after a local newspaper reporter named Sara Ganim (Riley Keough) wrote an article on the allegation of child sex abuses committed by Jerry Sandusky, who served as an assistant for Paternto for 30 years before his retirement in 1999 and had remained closely associated with Paterno and the Penn State University since that. Although her article did not draw much public attention at first when it came out, it eventually led to the grand jury investigation of this allegation, and the scandal subsequently broke out a few days later as Sandusky was officially indicted for his alleged crime.
The main part of the movie revolves around how the situation became worse for Paterno and his family day by day after that point. While a bunch of reporters are eagerly waiting outside his residence for any comment from him or his family, his family try to find any possible way for distancing the family from the scandal, but Paterno chooses to stick to what he has recently been occupied with: his team’s upcoming game with the Nebraska State University team. To him, the scandal seems to be a minor trouble which he and his team and family can endure, and it is pretty clear to us that he does not understand much how big and serious this scandal is going to be.
As the media focuses more and more on whether Paterno was aware of Sandusky’s crime from the beginning, Paterno’s family comes to hire a consultant from a crisis management firm, but the consultant flatly delivers the bad news to Paterno. There is no other way out for Paterno except his immediate resignation, and the Penn State University will fire him anyway for saving its reputation even if he does not do that. While certainly feeling exasperated, Paternto eventually agrees to leave his position after the end of the ongoing season, but then the Penn State University fires him immediately, and this leads to what will be remembered as one of the most shameful moments in the history of the Penn State University.
Meanwhile, the movie also pays considerable attention to Ganim’s continuing work on the scandal. She often meets one of Sandusky’s early victims and the victim’s mother, and she comes to learn more about how Sandusky’s crime has been neglected and covered up for many years. The victim and his mother tried as much as they could for exposing Sandusky’s crime, but that led to more pain and torment for them, and that will remind you of those many sexual abuse victims who were unjustly disregarded before the recent #MeToo movement.
As more of Sandusky’s crime is exposed in public, Paterno becomes a more distant figure to us due to his apparent obliviousness to the consequence of his serious negligence, but Pacino’s nuance acting still holds our attention. Dialing down his usual intense presence, Pacino, who previously collaborated with director Barry Levinson in another HBO film “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010), is fabulous as subtly suggesting whatever is being churned inside his character’s mind, and he is also supported well by good supporting performers including Riley Keough and Kathy Baker, who holds her own small place as Paterno’s distraught wife.
Although it does not illuminate anything new about Paterno or the Penn State University child sex abuse scandal, “Paterno” is still worthwhile to watch, and Pacino shows here that he can still be as compelling as before. Although he is approaching to 80 now, this great actor continues to work as usual even at this point, and I certainly hope that he will soon get another nice opportunity like “Paterno”.