'Paterno': TV Review

Pacino is compelling, but structural problems and thin supporting characters abound.
4/7/2018

Barry Levinson and Al Pacino reunite for yet another adequate HBO telefilm portrait of a notorious man — this time the legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

Since 2010, HBO has been the home for Al Pacino and Barry Levinson to embark on a series of telefilms that could be branded as Nonjudgmental Portraits of Notorious Middle-Aged Men.

The upcoming Paterno is their second collaboration with Pacino as star and Levinson as director, following the Jack Kevorkian-centric You Don't Know Jack. Pacino also starred for David Mamet in Phil Spector, with Levinson as executive producer, while Levinson also directed Robert De Niro in 2017's Bernie Madoff study The Wizard of Lies.

If you've seen those other movies, you should know not to go into Paterno looking for a concrete answer or perspective on when the iconic Penn State football coach first became aware of accusations of child sexual abuse against his venerable defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, what specific details he knew and why he felt his response, legally appropriate yet insufficient by most subjective standards, was enough. Paterno works on a level of implication and suggestion, all the while invariably stacking the deck by having its primary protagonist played by Pacino.

Debora Cahn and John C. Richards' script is set primarily over two chaotic weeks in which Paterno broke an NCAA record for Division I coaching wins, grand jury findings came down against Sandusky (Jim Johnson) and Penn State became a powder keg of controversy over which parts of the unfolding tragedy could have been prevented years earlier and decades earlier by which key figures at the university. It's a story centered around the fall of Paterno, the 84-year-old legend credited with elevating Penn State to international prominence and with nurturing generations of student athletes. A parallel story focuses on cub reporter Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), a Penn State grad who becomes the center of a media maelstrom when people realize she broke the Sandusky story in a small newspaper months earlier, but was largely ignored. By all rights, Ganim is a hero of this story. She's rarely a hero of this movie, though.

The script is a slightly confounding structural mess. There's a framing device that establishes Paterno having flashbacks from the claustrophobic confines of a hospital CT scanner — including of interactions Paterno couldn't have been privy to, as well as flashbacks for other characters. The film takes the safe approach of indicting athletic director Tim Curley (Steve Coulter), school president Graham Spanier (Tom Kemp) and vice president Gary Schultz (Murphy Guyer), since the same has already been done legally. None of the three is presented with any interiority or complexity. They're easy straw men in fungible character-actor suits, practically faceless figures of institutional contempt. JoePa, the film's central human figure, is left intentionally fuzzy.

Some viewers are likely to infer some measure of senility from Paterno's struggles to process how Sandusky's misdeeds relate to him or to the university, despite efforts by wife Sue (underused Kathy Baker), son Scott (effectively sympathetic Greg Grunberg) and daughter Mary Kay (Annie Parisse) to get certain aspects of the horror to sink in. Less generous viewers will probably read a willful obfuscation into Paterno's attempts to distance himself from both foreknowledge and responsibility. The more intended inference is probably that of a myopic man whose focus on football and intellectual pursuits — the family has to explain "sodomy" to him in historical Greek terms — was intentional, but not necessarily malignant.

If Wizard of Lies was characterized by how De Niro steered away from his most familiar mannerisms in surprising ways, Paterno basically delivers exactly what you'd expect from an Al Pacino performance as Joe Paterno — albeit with less loud-voiced blustering and more in the shambling, unassuming vein of his HBO Kevorkian. Even under a Teflon hairpiece, some mostly unobtrusive makeup and the coach's trademark oversized, boxy glasses, Pacino challenges you to reconcile conflicting qualities — his Paterno is avuncular, scholarly, frail, fiery and deluded — and he doesn't let Paterno off the hook for anything, while making it easily possible for charitable viewers to still do so. The script doesn't fabricate big moments for Pacino to chew scenery, and he shines most when Paterno is just sitting around a dinner table as loved ones and crisis managers work on strategy.

Thanks to stubborn facts, Paterno and Ganim share no scenes and the writers have a hard time articulating what Ganim was even doing during these particular days, since the story is being pushed forward with or without her reporting. She's a passive observer in a couple emotional scenes with a Sandusky victim and his mother (Benjamin Cook and Kristen Bush, both superb in small roles forced to stand in for all of the victims and all of the families), furrows her brow thoughtfully in a couple scenes with her editor (Peter Jacobson) and actually provides decent comic relief when she becomes an impossibly green in-demand expert for various TV networks new to the story. Keough is consistently fine-but-marginalized and, in a movie that wasn't all about foregrounding Pacino, Ganim's reporting might have made a much smarter structuring device than Paterno's inconsistent flashbacks.

Levinson is at his best in orchestrating several set pieces, including Paterno's milestone victory, which came as the Sandusky news was about to break, and the riots that broke out around campus after Paterno's abrupt dismissal, weaving between actual television coverage and restaged footage. Levinson and Hungarian cinematographer Marcell Rev nicely illustrate Paterno's growing alienation from the team and school he built and also, in the CT scan shots, from his own mind and memories.

Paterno is a more distinctive-looking movie than a lot of these HBO biopics, though, again, it isn't really a biopic. Thin supporting characters, the strange structural choices and the still-elusive nature of several facts in the timeline make it more of an introspective snapshot of a tragic moment of reckoning than anything revelatory. A different perspective, one less wedded to the Nonjudgmental Portraits of Notorious Middle-Aged Men genre, probably would have been more enlightening, if less likely to earn Pacino an Emmy nomination.

Cast: Al Pacino, Riley Keough, Kathy Baker, Greg Grunberg, Annie Parisse
Writers: Debora Cahn, John C. Richards
Director: Barry Levinson
Premieres: Saturday, 8 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)

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