‘Paterno’ offers grim, complex depiction of Penn State figure

HBO film about Penn State coach’s fall from greatness poses interesting, important questions


HBO's "Paterno" is a grim, complicated biopic dealing with the life of a Penn State football coach involved in the school's child abuse scandal.

Courtesy HBO Films

The HBO film “Paterno” is a complicated and gripping display of one of the largest scandals in American football history. Directed by Barry Levinson, the film relays the narrative that surrounds Joe Paterno, former head coach of the Penn State football team and American football legend. With the legacy of Penn State football at stake, Paterno and his team of assistants hid information from the police that their co-coach Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing young boys in the Penn State stadium. The film follows the few weeks before and after the scandal and reveals the bitter truths of the situation, while simultaneously honoring the legend of Paterno himself as he faces his own death within the film.

Spearheaded by Al Pacino as Paterno, the film relays the coach’s fast and painful fall from grace within a two-week narrative. Paterno is depicted as neither a hero nor a villain, but instead something in between. The film is set within a frame narrative in which Paterno recalls the incidents of the scandal as he lays in an MRI machine, nearing his death. This particular point of view makes his role more nuanced than most, forcing the viewer to both dislike and sympathize with him. This choice of depiction makes an already compelling story even more enthralling. 

Levinson adds to this layer of nuance by contrasting the diverse array of reactions towards Paterno's affiliation with the scandal. On the one hand, Levinson brilliantly depicts the struggle of Paterno’s two of five children — Scott and Diana — as they come to realize their own father’s lack of morality. It becomes strikingly obvious that the two struggle with the fact that Paterno failed to contact the police after learning about the sexual abuse. Levinson juxtaposes this reaction against the Penn State students’ cult-like revolts in support of Paterno, painting him as a god-like figure. In the end, this mix of reactions conveys Paterno as a complicated and intriguing character that demands the viewer’s attention. 

Levinson's ability to draw in his audience through nuanced characters has become a common practice of his, especially in collaboration with Pacino. As the third film for which Levinson and Pacino have collaborated, “Paterno” proves that the two have become a cinematic power team. This relationship is adapted to the screen through Pacino’s solid yet reserved performance, a style which he has adopted while working with Levinson. This modest performance adds a rawness to every scene, especially ones with intimate interactions. Surrounded by constant stress, Paterno acts as a cornerstone when the situation seems to constantly be on the verge of collapse — but the collapse never happens. This performance, though reserved, speaks to the truth of Joe Paterno’s persona, painting him as a man who truly just cared about football. 

One component of the film that is not being talked about nearly enough is the incredibly raw depiction of Aaron Fisher, one of Sandusky’s rape victims. Being the first to come forward about his sexual abuse, this character is the film’s pinnacle of vulnerability. This focus on Fisher brings a sensitivity to the screen that needs to be addressed — after all, this is a narrative about rape. Scenes focusing on Fisher and the sexual trauma he has suffered remind the audience what this movie is really about — for at times it's easy to forget. This side narrative is incredibly important and could have played a larger role in the film, which focused maybe too heavily on college football. 

Within the confines of a little less than two hours, this immensely complicated narrative will likely leave viewers with a few questions. With that said, the constricted frame also allows for a variety of raw scenes from which one can’t look away. “Paterno” is a well-focused display of a legacy’s fall from greatness. What’s left to question is whether or not he was pushed.

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