Even now, it’s difficult to swallow the events surrounding the indictment and conviction of former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky in 2011 of forty-five counts of rape and molestation of young boys. Many of those incidents occurred on Penn State grounds, including the infamous account of Sandusky being caught in the shower with a young boy by assistant coach Mike McQueary – all of it seemingly part of a pipeline of young, vulnerable boys Sandusky brought to himself through his Second Mile charity for at-risk youth. Of course, Penn State faculty and staff were informed multiple times of Sandusky’s behavior, but he was protected by retirement deals that allowed him access to university athletic facilities – as well as a culture that swept inconvenient truths under the rug for the sake of the school’s reputation. The revelations were a disgusting state of affairs that led to hard questions and passionate debate about the way this would affect the cult-like devotion Penn State’s fans had to its acclaimed football program.
At the center of it all was head coach Joe Paterno – “JoePa,” as he was so dubbed by his adoring fans – a figurative god at Penn State’s football program, and cultural mainstay for the town’s rabid football fanbase. How much did he know about Sandusky’s behavior? What did he do, or not do, to stop it? And how culpable is he for the tragedies that occurred? These questions are at the core of Barry Levinson’s HBO film Paterno, an admirable docudrama that’s as interested in the psychology of denial as it is the circumstances surrounding the Sandusky scandal.
Apart from a few wordless glimpses in flashback or on old game footage, Sandusky himself is practically nowhere to be seen in Paterno. Instead, the film effectively splits its focus between JoePa himself (Al Pacino) and future Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sara Ganim (Riley Keough) – the former tries his best to push the impending scandal to the side and focus on work, and the latter continues to doggedly pursue the truth about Sandusky’s behavior and the institutional roadblocks that facilitated it. Sandusky’s already done his damage; his culpability is beyond question. It’s the extent to which JoePa should be punished that is the film’s major concern, as the press closes in on him and his family (Kathy Baker, Annie Parisse, Greg Grunberg) asks questions about what he knew.
In any other context, Pacino would be an interesting choice for Paterno – he’s typically an actor of gaunt intensity, the guy you get when you need a fast-talking wise guy with brio. To that end, Paterno is a much wearier performance from the veteran actor, his slumped shoulders and pot belly sinking over JoePa’s signature sky-blue sweater. As Paterno, Pacino is most animated when he’s on the football field, but grumpy and irascible at home and in conferences with lawyers. His JoePa is a man who isn’t used to this level of scrutiny, a workaholic pathologically dedicated to the career he spent six decades cultivating. When something as world-shattering as this scandal comes along, Pacino deliberately drains his signature verve from Paterno, playing up the weak frailty of an old man relying on his reputation to skate by without scrutiny.
It’s in these moments that Paterno does its most complicated psychological investigations, its central figure a portrait of the complexities of institutional denial. The film never seriously entertains the notion that JoePa would actually be innocent, but it does present the possibility that Paterno’s own tunnel vision about his coaching and administration was so great that even he forgot about the multiple instances of victims coming forth, and employees asking him for advice about Jerry’s behavior. In brief, chaotic flashes, Paterno will think back to those meetings, or fundraising speeches he gave at Second Mile, the realization of everything Sandusky has done draping over his face like a heavy blanket. Paterno never lets its titular character fully off the hook, but hardly paints him like an active co-conspirator either.
Even then, Paterno’s failings find their way to the surface in myriad ways, Pacino’s surprisingly grounded performance making way for subtleties that hint at the true banality of evil Paterno represented. As details of Sandusky’s crimes come forward, Paterno seems confused by their very existence, the same way your granddad might be confused when you tell him what Tinder is. But as the film goes on, cracks in Paterno’s grandfatherly naivete start to show: “Who knows about rumors? I don’t remember what I had for breakfast,” he replies to his lawyer’s question about whether he heard anything before 2001. That’s an excuse, his lawyer replies – the kind of strategy an old man uses when he wants to feign ignorance. “I started saying that to my wife when I turned 40,” he says. From there, the audience is invited to question the extent to which Paterno doesn’t want to confront the truth, what he knows deep in his heart but doesn’t even want to admit to himself lest his legacy be dismantled.
While Pacino’s the real draw, Keough’s portrayal of Ganim would fit right alongside Spotlight for its detail-oriented determinism and humble dedication to the truth. One interesting hurdle is that Ganim is herself deeply entrenched in the Penn State culture, as is everyone in the town – when she’s not chasing down leads or hounding administrators, she’ll have conversations with hostile friends and neighbors who think she prints lies for a paycheck. “It must not be a good lie, because it’s a tiny fucking paycheck,” she responds. It’s an eerie reminder of the ease with which people are inclined to distrust the media when they print something inconvenient.
Though these investigations of the Penn State culture and Paterno’s involvement are riveting, the film’s 100-minute runtime feels a bit too short to provide the detailed portrait of the scandal it really should. As it stands, it feels like an overview, a snapshot of the days and weeks surrounding the scandal that asks a lot of questions but doesn’t give itself the time to answer them with much satisfaction. Most underserved by the film’s brevity is the outrage that Penn State loyalists felt around the time of Paterno’s firing; we get brief glimpses of horror, like two students chasing down one of the victims in an empty hallway, or the overnight riots that occurred at Penn State that night. Other than that, though, the film is all too laser-focused on how the scandal impacts the individuals involved, rather than the culture as a whole. That culture lingers, not just at Penn State but across the country; it’s crucial that we, as a people, reckon with the ways that culture insulates the wicked from facing justice.
Since Paterno has passed, and Sandusky will likely die in prison, it may well be time to discuss the cultural factors that protected people like them in the first place – the entrenched tribalism of school athletic programs, the toxic masculinity that silences people who threaten their cultish devotion. While it doesn’t dig nearly as hard as it should, Paterno is still a vehicle for a fantastic performance from Pacino, and a reminder of the ways that powerful people are protected not just by their institutions, but by their own compartmentalization of the things they’ve done.