“Paterno” premiered on HBO over the weekend and was met with as much controversy as you would expect. The Paterno family called it a fictionalized work and claimed it failed to resemble what actually happened in any way. Onward State, the student-run news organization for Penn State, published several articles attempting to attack the accuracy of the film. One tone deaf article, titled “A Review of Inaccuracies in HBO’s ‘Paterno” pointed out such egregious errors as the incorrect size of Paterno’s statue and the inclusion of a bar in the Beaver Stadium press box. None of the criticisms had to do with the actual story told in the film. Seven years after the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, it’s clear that some people are still missing the point.
Joe Paterno is a piece of shit. And what kind of nickname is JoePa? I really just wanted to trigger Penn State fans with those statements. But, like really, what a real piece of work. While this film is about a terrible human being, the film itself was great. It was wonderfully shot and seems to be pretty accurate, despite what people affiliated with Penn State would like you to believe right now. But, more on that later.
The films opens with Paterno (Al Pacino) coaching the Penn State Nittany Lions to their 409th win under his leadership. Several months have passed since The Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim (Riley Keough) published an article about a grand jury investigation into sex abuse claims against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The tightly crafted script juxtaposes the Pulitzer Prize winning efforts by Ganim to share the stories of the survivors of Sandusky’s crimes with increasing questions by the public, the press and Paterno’s family as to what the coach knew, and when. Paterno refuses to focus on the accusations against Sandusky, preparing instead for an upcoming game against Nebraska. When pressed, he tells his inner circle he was shocked when he was told ten years earlier about Sandusky showering with young boys in the locker room on campus, but that he did what he was required to by notifying his superiors. It wasn’t his job to do anything else. He was working. He was coaching.
Pacino is great in this role. Frail, disconnected and maddeningly indifferent at times to the suffering fostered by his inaction, his Paterno is someone you can’t feel much sympathy for, but certainly loads of frustration. The truth is he probably did a lot of good in the lives of the young men he coached, but his sense of responsibility started and ended with those who wore Nittany Lions jerseys. Not even his family, the film asserts, was of as much concern to him.
In my opinion, the women of this film stole the show. Riley Keough played journalist Sara Ganim, who was responsible for the breaking of the Jerry Sandusky case. She played a delightfully awkward young journalist. There was one particular scene where she was being interviewed on camera where she was so relatable as a character. She was awkward and unsure of herself, which is something that every woman in her early to mid-twenties can relate to. This particular scene made you want to root for her the entire film. Moving on though, the coveted title of film crush of the week though goes to Kathy Baker, who played Sue Paterno. The character really served no purpose to the larger story line, but she was delightful when she was on screen.
I also thought Baker was excellent in this role, and it was great that she got to do more than be a supportive wife. She really started questions Joe in the end, which leads to a scene that is one of the film’s biggest moments, and, depending on who you ask, it’s greatest use of creative license.
Paterno is the main character in this film, and a pathetic, unlikable one at that, yet he isn’t the villain. He looms over the entire scandal in the film the way Catholic churches in “Spotlight” visually towered over the images of the Boston city-scape. But as with “Spotlight,” the film is an indictment of how a community or campus can help keep such terrible crimes a secret for so long and attack the victims once they speak up.
Now comes the time where I can get on my high horse and tell supporters of Joe Paterno why they are just plain wrong. The film in general was great. However, the story that the film is based on is just plain fucked up. For those of you not familiar with the Penn State scandal, Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach for the Penn State football team, sexually assaulted multiple boys who were part of the Second-Mile program. This program was a non-profit that served the needs of underprivileged youth. In 2011, Sandusky was charged with 52 counts of sexual assault. It was discovered that Joe Paterno, the head coach of Penn State, knew about this abuse for years and never reported it to authorities.
In the film, they depict the riot that happened on campus when the board of trustees of Penn State fired Joe Paterno for his knowledge and complicity in this case. I understand loving your football team. I have been bleeding green and yellow since the ripe age of four. I would have done anything for Brett Favre before he became a backstabbing piece of shit. I would drop Nathan in a heartbeat if Aaron Rodgers suddenly professed his love to me (Sorry honey, I would rather you know the truth). However, I cannot fathom throwing my support behind someone like Joe Paterno just because he is the coach of my team and has won a lot of games. The reality is really talented people sometimes do really shitty things. Sometimes, that is difficult to reconcile in your mind. In this case though, there were children that were sexually assaulted and Joe Paterno knew about it and did little to stop it. That makes him just as responsible as Sandusky himself.
I also know what it is like to support the educational institution that you love. However, the campaign that students of Penn State have launched against this film is just ridiculous. Onward State, a Penn State student run blog, posted an article titled, “A Review of Inaccuracies In HBO’s ‘Paterno.” In this article, the author outlines six issues that they had with the film. All of these issues are about minute details such as the position of the Paterno statue, whether or not a certain building actually contains bleachers, the location of a bar that is shown in the movie, and the chipmunk logo on the outside of the stadium. Never once in this article do they discuss the portrayal of any of the people involved in this case or any inaccuracies in the story line of the film. This article proves that many attending Penn State still choose to live in a state of denial over this case. Of course there were slight differences in how the town and college appear. It was not filmed in State College, PA. While this film is based on true events, the film makers are still able to take liberty with small choices like that without it taking away from the overall narrative of the story.
The film’s angriest moments are when it depicts the public’s indifference to victims and tendency to protect icons. One of Ganim’s roommates accuses her of lying about Paterno, because that’s how she and other journalists make their living. Ganim’s response is perfect: “It must not be a very big lie, cause it’s a tiny fucking paycheck.” After Paterno is fired, students riot in the streets in his defense, chanting “We Want Joe” and “Fuck the Media.” When Ganim finds a student who disagrees with her rioting classmates, the student refuses to be quoted in an article because she fears violent retribution.
HBO is well known for engrossing biographical films, and “Paterno” is a strong, unsettling and brilliantly acted addition to a lineup that includes films like “Game Change” and “Confirmation.” This is one of the few films I would argue is just too short. The script drops Aaron Fisher, the first person to publicly testify against Sandusky, from the storyline abruptly and he is largely absent from the second half. Most of the film is also a flashback, experienced by Paterno as he lies in an MRI machine. The editing strains to remind us that we are seeing Paterno’s memories, cutting back to his face and eyes with enough frequency that the effect is weakened. Those are my few complaints though. “Paterno” is an unsettling, unflinching and necessary reminder of how lives can be destroyed when people in positions of power fail to make more than the minimum effort.
The cinematography of this film was amazing. There were so many beautifully unique shots. The lighting and transition shots made this film what it was. All in all, it was a great film to look at. With that being said, there were a few editing and story line choices that I did not enjoy. First, they used a black screen with white words to establish time in the story. My issue though was with the very quick cuts to these time establishing shots. The quick cuts took away from the shot before it. I actually found it to be a bit distracting. The other issue that I had with this film was the choice to tell it through flash backs. At the beginning of the film, it shows Joe Paterno (Al Pacino) in the hospital. The story of the Jerry Sandusky scandal is then told through flashbacks while Paterno is in an MRI machine. Personally, I think this story would have been better told linearly. The flashbacks seemed very unnecessary.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. At first, I was skeptical about the casting and how Paterno would be portrayed. However, I am happy to report that I was thoroughly surprised at the quality of this film. It was a visually beautiful film to watch, from what I can tell, the story was true to the actual events that it was based on, and the acting was great. This story is very unfortunate, and a character in the film summed it up well, “Why is anyone talking about Paterno? A crime against children has occurred…”
Colucci, Anthony (April 8, 2018) “A Review of Inaccuracies in HBO’s ‘Paterno.” Onward State. Retrieved April 8, 2018.
Viera, Mark (November 5, 2011). “Former Coach at Penn State Is Charged With Abuse”. The New York Times. Retrieved November 6, 2011