By HTP Editorial

Paterno is a Sony Pictures Television/HBO Films production first aired on April 7, 2018.  It was directed by Barry Levinson, produced by Amy Herman, with screenplay by Debora Cahn and David McKenna. Al Pacino stars in the title role.

Much has been said and written about the horrific sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, perpetrated by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted in 2012 of serial child rape and molestation occurring on the Penn State campus over a period of years. A number of school officials, including the college president, were also charged or implicated for obstruction of justice and failure to report the crimes to law enforcement when they first learned of them.  In the wake of the debacle, the wildly popular head coach Joe Paterno had his contract terminated by the board of trustees.

The film Paterno is quite interesting on a number of levels and manages to sidle up to some very subtle stuff.  It is not the story of Sandusky but rather of the 84 year old Paterno, who gradually becomes drawn into the scandal by association. At the onset, we are inclined to like him and to sympathize with his predicament.  He portrays himself as a busy guy, focused on his football team, only vaguely aware of allegations against Sandusky.  He recalls hearing rumors of an instance of sexual abuse by his assistant coach years before, which he immediately reported to the school administration. He never personally witnessed any abuse.  He himself is innocent of any wrongdoing. Or is he?

As the narrative unfolds, the viewer has to examine the role of “bystanders” in sexual abuse cases.  What did Paterno really know and when did he know it?  How much weight should he have given to rumors? What kind of moral obligation did he have to the alleged victims?  To the accused? Should he have gone to the authorities himself instead of just reporting it to school officials?

Paterno is eventually forced to hire a public relations expert to help him deal with the press and the public scrutiny surrounding Sandusky.  In a pivotal scene, Paterno tells the expert that he doesn’t remember what he ate for breakfast, much less what happened years ago.  The expert responds, ” ‘I don’t remember what I had for breakfast’ is what people say who are afraid they DO remember, and who are old enough to think they can get away with it.”  The look of recognition on Paterno’s face tells us all we need to know.

What begins to emerge then is the portrait of a man who most likely knew a great deal more than he was admitting, even to himself, a man who chose to look the other way, to protect his own interests, to take the road of least resistance and not rock the boat.  College football, after all, is the soul of a school’s spirit, its ticket to alumnae funding, a measure of its “worth”, the key to its identity.  And Paterno was riding a wave of success.

As the viewer sees Paterno scramble to define his legacy, what one does not see is any real understanding from him of the devastation caused to the victims of the abuse. They seem to be merely incidental to his struggles.  When asked if anyone ever spoke with the purported victim of the initial rumor, he admits that no one did, and calls it an “oversight.” We begin to grasp the full weight of the “boys’ club” that, whether by design or neglect, failed to respond effectively to abuse and by this omission became complicit in it.

The closest we come to divining Paterno’s own heart and conscience comes during a scene with his wife, in which she expresses incredulity that he, knowing what he did, would have allowed their own children to be so often alone in Sandusky’s company during game away trips.  As he flashes back in his memory to scenes of his children playing in a swimming pool with Sandusky, it begins to dawn on Paterno how close to home it really was.  Inaction endangers everyone, and no one is safe.

Paterno is a well written and well crafted film, with an arresting performance by Pacino.  And it manages to avoid all of the possible pitfalls to which it might have been susceptible. It does not wallow in salacious locker room material, nor does it strike the viewer with a heavy-handed morality tale.  Instead, through an emerging portrait of Paterno, we are all called upon to examine our own complicity–however remote– in child sexual abuse.  If we know it is going on, and we do not act, who are we?

Click here to watch a trailer for Paterno