Directed by Barry Levinson
Written by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards
Any fan of college football likely knows who Joe Paterno is. Some may have much closer relationships with him than others. For instance, I am a Columbus, OH resident and therefore also a die-hard Ohio State fan, so Penn State has been a part of my fall Saturdays for my entire life (they joined the Big Ten when I was very young). So I know all about Joe Paterno as a rival. I know all about his legacy and impact on State College and the state of Pennsylvania. So when the Jerry Sandusky scandal broke, I knew all about just how huge the story was, just how impactful this scandal would be to both Penn State and Joe Paterno’s reputation. Joe Pa was beloved, now he is a fascinating character study. A fallen idol for his involvement in a series of heinous crimes.
Joe Paterno (Al Pacino) is nearing the record for most wins by a coach in college football history after an historic tenure at Penn State. But on this cusp, a young, diligent reporter named Sara Ganim (Riley Keough) has been investigating a report that accuses a former assistant coach under Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, of a string of horrific sexual crimes against young men. As the story begins to break, the luster of Paterno’s legacy comes into question. More information is coming out, more victims are coming forward. Was Paterno an enabler? Did he know about the accusations and say nothing? Do nothing? What kind of institutional malpractice took place at Penn State under his watch?
Look, I mentioned a personal connection to the true story being told by this film, but in reality, it’s not a personal connection, not like many of the people directly involved in the story. When something like this breaks in the news, my heart breaks for the victims who had to go through hell. And while Paterno did not perpetrate the crimes himself, you have to wonder what you would do in his situation. The film itself seems to land somewhere in the middle, muddled by the information available and whether or not Paterno did what he was responsible to do or not. I think by living somewhere in the middle, the movie is a little more interesting than it deserves to be. Taking a definitive side on the legacy of the celebrated coach would be a lazy approach.
But at the same time, the line filmmaker Barry Levinson toes in Paterno does lean a little to the side of condemnation, but the bit of uncertainty clouds the character as portrayed by Al Pacino, whose performance is rather subdued and ho-hum for Pacino. As an old man, only interested in coaching football, completely disinterested in the politics of an explosive scandal unfolding around him, Pacino plays Paterno not necessary as guilty, but certainly completely detached from any responsibility, whether true or not. I think anyone looking back on the story sees Paterno as an enabler, who didn’t do enough to prevent a criminal from committing his crimes. But maybe it’s not as simple as that. Maybe the doubt that is explored here is genuine. Maybe Paterno didn’t know any better, or was completely unaware of everything going on around him. It’s hard to say, but this film does little to add to the discussion.