‘Paterno’ takes poor angle in tackling Penn St. abuse scandal

‘Paterno’ takes poor angle in tackling Penn St. abuse scandal
Atsushi Nishjima/HBO via CNN

“Paterno” bears the name of the legendary Penn St. football coach, but in ways he’s a second-string player in this HBO movie, a look at his frantic final days that bears a striking resemblance to — and includes the same flaws as — the network’s recent movie about another Shakespearean fall, the Bernie Madoff story “The Wizard of Lies.”

Both films were directed by Barry Levinson, while “Paterno” features Al Pacino as the Joe Paterno, adding to the actor’s run playing real larger-than-life characters in HBO movies, including Roy Cohn (“Angels in America”) and Dr. Jack Kevorkian (“You Don’t Know Jack”).

In Paterno, the actor might have found the closest resemblance to his role in the third “Godfather” movie — playing a sick, old, tired man, trapped in a situation he desperately wants to escape, with no idea how to do so.

As noted, though, Paterno is in some respects a secondary figure in this oddly structured film, whose hero is really a local newspaper reporter, Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), who broke the story about Paterno’s longtime assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, molesting and sexually assaulting young boys while the university looked the other way.

Ganim’s quiet, dogged persistence serves as a testament to the need for local reporting, contrasting her hard-earned connection to sources with clueless national media outlets that parachute in, trying to get the story without those contacts or that institutional knowledge. (Ganim is currently a correspondent for CNN.)

Unfortunately, the shoe leather that went into Ganim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work — as well as the malfeasance that let Sandusky’s abuse continue unimpeded — is largely glossed over by the structure of the movie, which is concentrated over a few days, after word of Sandusky’s coming indictment surfaced.

Old and frail, the then-84-year-old Paterno is introduced coaching from the press box, as a frenzied crowd celebrates his record-breaking 409th career win.

Soon, however, he’s faced with the Sandusky news, and seemingly unable to comprehend why he should focus on the threat that the story presents to his job and legacy. “I got Nebraska a week from today,” he says, referencing Penn St.’s next game, and making clear where he thinks his attention should be.

Of course, those out-of-whack priorities also define the university’s fans — who chant “We want Joe!” after he’s dismissed — and school hierarchy, which placed protecting their beloved football program ahead of children’s safety. “The business with the shower?” one official mutters during a flashback as they discuss their potential exposure.

Where “Paterno” feels somewhat hollow, as “Wizard of Lies” did, is by essentially joining this story late in the fourth quarter. Yes, it’s interesting to watch Paterno’s end as his family tries to rally around him, but there are too-few glimpses of Penn St. in his heyday, when he and others conveniently looked the other way.

As for Pacino, he’s always good, but this feels like the least among his forays for HBO, perhaps because so much of the story in this truncated time frame unfolds around him, as he weakly flails against the rising tide.

“After 61 years, he deserved better,” Paterno’s wife (Kathy Baker) says, upon learning that her husband’s being forced to retire.

What Ganim’s investigative reporting makes clear is that the ones who deserved better were Sandusky’s victims. “Paterno” doesn’t lose sight of that, but it does tackle its difficult subject from an angle that, ultimately, blunts its impact.

“Paterno” premieres April 7 at 8 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is owned by Time Warner.