Paterno (USA 2018)
Barry Levinson’s ‘Paterno’ is the best movie I’ve seen this year. HBO released it last month, and I’ve watched it several times. I love Levinson’s work - his series of movies set in Baltimore are among my favorite portraits of a specific time and place in America, and he takes that wonderful skill of sentimentality and turns it on his head regarding the child abuse scandal that rocked the football world several years ago.
I haven’t been a fan of much of Al Pacino’s work for the last 30 years - Heat and Sea of Love are the only two films he’s done in that time period I’ve really enjoyed. Playing Joe Paterno, he puts on one of the best performances of his entire career, right there with Dog Day Afternoon, Godfather II and Serpico. He thankfully ditches the wild exaggerations and gestures that have marred his later work (I think it began in Scent of a Woman is where it started), and plays Paterno as both sympathetic and unpardonable, his previously unimpeachable reputation destroyed in less than a week. Levinson doens’t pile on - he doesn’t need to, the story was and remains the most grotesque empowerment of a monster because of the football program’s reputation.
Gene Siskel had the best maxim about approaching a film: it’s not what it’s about, but how it’s about what it’s about. Paterno executes this flawlessly, becuase you don’t have to know anything about football, Joe Paterno, Penn State or the scandal itself to immediately get hooked in by the film. Movies about child abuse, animal abuse, domestic abuse etc have a tendency to get understandably preachy, even the best of them (think The Post and Scandal as two recent examples of eye-rolling soap-boxing). Levinson stays off the soapbox, saving the most seering indictiments of Paterno, Penn State and its footbal program for the very end - first in an interview reporter Sarah Ganim conducts with one of the victim’s psychologist, and the other the jaw dropping final exchange of dialogue in the film, between Ganim and an unnamed victim.
I had and continue to have a strong, passionate opinion on Penn State, just as most Americans who follow college football tend to. My view then and now was that Penn State should have recieved the Death Penalty, and if not sanctioned to that degree by the NCAA, it should - as the University of Chicago did in the 1930s - voluntarily end its football program because of how it was marring its mission.
The Board of Trustees rightly fired Paterno after he announced he would retire at the end of the season, but it didn’t go far enough to keep intact the reputation of the university. Like it or not, fair or not, Penn State is seen by me and a large chunk of the viewing public as a cult that empowered a serial pedophile and even after it became known that Paterno had known about this for years, still the culft members felt victimized. When I hear the name Penn State, all I think of is that chilling, dreary phrase: rythmic slapping sounds. That’s what assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno he heard in the locker room, prompting him to go the showers where a naked Sandusky was physically involved with a 14-year-old boy.
The film uses Ganim’s reporting as its structure. Ganim was all of 25 and a beat reporter for the Harrisburg (PA) Patriot-News when she broke the story, and her brave reportage of such an inflammatory story that had been ignored for years endeared her to at least one of the victims, leading her to open the Pandora’s Box of Penn State Football. Ganim specically and the paper overall won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, making her one of the youngest recipients of the award.
There still exist a large number of people who think Paterno got railroaded, and this view is given equal time in the film. The night Paterno was fired, students rioted, and many just couldn’t believe that the most powerful man in Happy Valley could be in any way complicit in child sexual abuse. The film in this regard is almost documentary in its effect, and Levinson’s patience with unspooling the story that took years to develop and then hurtled along in the span of a week, is exemplary.
With every passing year, I’m less and less interested in American football, in large part becuase of the irrationality expressed by its most vocal fans will excuse any behavior if it gets in the way of a favored team’s success. Paterno is the best case to be made for such a view.