In the final act of “Paterno,” HBO’s crackling examination of the Penn State football coach’s legacy-defining final days, there’s a pivotal scene that draws you in only to smack you in the face for your misplaced compassion. Delivered a letter with a phone number inside, Joe Paterno (Al Pacino) shuffles down the hallway toward his bedroom and dials his portable landline. He lifts the receiver to his ear, says his name, listens briefly and then hangs up. “They fired me,” he says to his wife, Sue (Kathy Baker).
Joe, wearing his blue pajama bottoms, keeps walking, but Sue stops him in the bedroom and takes the phone. His hand dangles, unmoved from when it was still holding the receiver, as she redials the number and says, “After 61 years, he deserved better.” Paterno in this moment is a pathetic figure so far removed from the legend he built himself into that his wife is the only one fighting back. He walks to the bed, sits down, and sighs. It’s not a deep sigh; more like a thoughtful “huh.”
And yet despite all of this — his frozen hand, droopy pajamas, and defeated exhalation — the question that immediately pops to mind isn’t an angry rebuke in defense of a respected coach ousted like some data entry temp. It’s, “Did he deserve better?”
That doubt sneaks up on you, much like the rest of the film. No matter your opinions coming in, “Paterno” is designed to engage the school’s most ardent supporters before breaking down why there’s no rationalization for what this coach did. What begins as an immediate rejection of any blame put upon Paterno for the decades-long child sex abuse scandal — carried out by his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky — slowly but surely shifts perspective as the facts are revealed. Levinson’s film isn’t merely a condemnation of complicit inaction, but also of our instinctual reactions to fallen heroes. That makes it timely, while the filmmaking makes it intense.
“Paterno” starts as a football story and ends as a human rights story. At first, it’s easy to side with the coach who’s just trying to win a football game. The opening segment throws us into a fall battle for Paterno’s record-breaking 409th win. But in the moment, it’s exciting. The fans are loud, the teams are evenly matched, and above it all, calling plays from the booth due to a recent hip injury, is Paterno; a god overseeing his domain.
Levinson introduces the fervor in its designated arena (the football stadium) early in order to contrast where that same passion doesn’t belong later on — the campus streets. Much of “Paterno” is told in contrasts, a film that moves quickly while holding back key revelations far longer than knowledgeable viewers might expect. There’s also the quiet simplicity of Paterno’s home, which is modestly decorated and sparsely populated compared to the lavish halls of Penn State’s athletic facilities or the crowds chanting support on “JoePa’s” front lawn. The townhouse sees its fair share of heated discussions, but none that can’t be silenced by the beckoning of its owner (or just him getting up to change seats).
Then there’s the infuriating lack of response to Sara Ganim’s (Riley Keough) story. A number of times during the film, someone remarks how no one noticed Ganim’s initial report, six months before the indictment, that a grand jury was investigating Sandusky. Her arc builds to a surreal scene where she wanders through the rioting crowds, chanting and tipping cars in protest of their beloved coach’s ouster. After spending so much time talking to victims, wrapping her mind around what happened to them and focusing on the appalling facts of the case, Ganim can only stare in stunned defiance as her school’s current student body ignores the fate of abused children in favor of football. It’s a disparity in human response as profound as it is upsetting.
And, of course, there’s Paterno himself, studiously embodied by Al Pacino. The transformative thespian captures the look of his subject to a T, but it’s worth noting Paterno’s head is slightly taller, his eyes a touch bigger, than the former coach’s. Even with all the makeup (and those thick, tinted glasses), Pacino is a better-looking version of JoePa and that matters because he’s a more empathetic figure. No matter how you felt about the real Paterno, aesthetically he was trollish; a tiny head with squinty eyes that looked like it was ready to recede into his collared jacket at any moment.
Pacino uses his looks to his advantage. During the opening act, it’s easier to take JoePa’s side because he’s a cute old man trapped in an uncomfortable situation. Viewers can buy into his ignorance as a valid excuse because come on — it’s Joe! That’s exactly how many fans felt from the onset (hence the rioting), and Pacino evokes similar acquiescence before purposefully throwing it out the window as he continues.
Much like Robert De Niro did in Levinson’s HBO film from 2017, the Bernie Madoff biopic “The Wizard of Lies,” Pacino plays Paterno without a wink of hidden understanding. It never feels like Paterno’s purposefully hiding something. He fully believes what he’s saying, even when he’s too flummoxed by all the non-football talk to give a proper response. Yet Pacino tells us everything we need to know by doing less; this isn’t the fiery “Scent of a Woman” Al, shouting down his accusers. This is the “Angels in America” Al — savvy and precise while hiding behind his age, as he remembers events from inside an MRI machine.
Pacino’s Paterno is at once wracked with guilt and oblivious to any misdeeds. He’s a figure of sympathy and disgust. Pacino constructs the man along with the movie, both timing his subtle tips to critical scenes (like the part in the trailer where Sue asks Paterno about the pool) and adeptly downshifting as his stature dips from a myth to a man.
But the peculiarities stack up. Despite his place at the center of the football program, Paterno doesn’t read Sandusky’s indictment — featuring all the details of his alleged assaults — until days after it’s issued. There’s his laser focus on the upcoming Nebraska game — a game he’ll never coach. There’s the questions about how and why he told who he told, when, and why, that don’t have good answers.
In the end, “Paterno” lays out its case clearly and definitively. If anything, it could’ve been twice as long, ceding more time to Ganim, the students, and the players in the program, past and present. (One could argue Sandusky deserves more screen time, too, as he’s barely in the film, and yet he’s certainly not missed.) For what the film does with the subject under scrutiny, “Paterno” deserves all the praise revoked from the disgraced coach. It speaks to viewers with disparate reactions, but it also speaks to anyone who didn’t dig into the scandal at the time by outlining what happens when we are too quick to defend the famous faces instead of those claiming to be victimized by them.
Did Paterno deserve better? No, the film contends, but those kids sure did. He wasn’t the assaulter; he was a man who turned a deaf ear to victims in need. In the Me Too era, this message matters all the more.
“Paterno” airs Saturday, April 7 at 8 p.m. ET on HBO.
[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that Joe Paterno was stripped of his 409th win as part of the NCAA’s punishment of the Penn St. football program. This is true, but the win was later reinstated.]