What we want is for Al Pacino to convey something deeper, something illuminating about the fall of the hero from the highest reaches of the gods.
Paterno, directed by Barry Levinson. HBO
By Glenn Rifkin
Joe Paterno, the late, legendary football coach at Penn State University, was known to quote from the poet Virgil’s famed Aeneid, an epic poem Paterno claimed had deeply influenced his life and work. “The adventures of Aeneas seeped into far corners of my mind, into my feelings about what is true and honorable and important,” Paterno wrote in a 1990 essay for Crisis magazine, a publication for the Catholic laity. “They helped shape everything I have since become.”
In his essay, Paterno describes the fata, the fates, that had driven Aeneas’ journey through a world crashing around him via a catastrophic storm. “Destiny, the fatum, the divine word, the inner voice, whatever you want to call it, tells you where you have to wind up and what you’re destined to do, but it doesn’t tell you how to get there or how to do it. Aeneas has to struggle and suffer—and make his own decisions. How he acts is not determined by fate. He listens, he considers. But then he must act out of free will.”
There is no small sense of irony that the cerebral and iconic coach who preached about honor and leadership and acts of free will, chose to follow the path that ended in his own catastrophic storm.
For those of us sports fans who watched with a mixture of horror and fascination the ignominious downfall of Paterno in 2011, the new HBO drama Paterno starring Al Pacino, serves as little more or less than a giant question mark. We knew going in that Paterno was well aware of the sexual abuse of young boys by his long-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. We had read with astonishment that Paterno had known, possibly for decades, that his friend and colleague was abusing boys, but had passed the buck to complicit university officials and somehow justified saying and doing nothing to halt this evil predator. We knew that this astonishing display of institutional failure cost the university’s president Graham Spanier his job and that he was later convicted of endangering the welfare of children. And we knew that Paterno paid the ultimate price for his silence and refusal to act. He was fired in disgrace after 61 years as Penn State’s head coach, and saw his stellar reputation as a Hall of Fame coach, leader, and educator crushed into dust. A campus statue of the beloved Joe Pa was removed and he died of cancer two months after the scandal broke into the national spotlight.
It was a tragedy, in every sense of the word, and while director Barry Levinson creates a compelling drama around this sordid and shameful affair, it never gives up Paterno’s ghost to share with us whether he truly understood the magnitude of his criminal neglect.
As the 84-year-old Paterno, Pacino mumbles and growls his way through the role. Surrounded by his deeply loving and loyal family, Paterno seems both bewildered and in denial when he is confronted with the emerging scandal at this beloved university, a horrific secret, seemingly put to rest years earlier, exploding into the public spotlight. His initial response is to ask anyone in earshot what the scandal had to do with him. Given that Paterno was lauded for his intellectual approach to football and life due to his Ivy League education (Brown, 1950) and his oft-repeated love of the poetry of Virgil, Pacino plays the coach as a doddering old fool blinded by his obsession with football and loyalty to his friends.
Fueled by an article in the Harrisburg Patriot-News by young reporter Sara Ganim (who would win a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the story), the lit match roars into a full-out conflagration in a matter of days. Ganim, portrayed effectively but somewhat listlessly by Riley Keough, serves as the film’s engine room. She found the first of Sandusky’s victims, Aaron Fisher (a convincing Benjamin Cook), who is willing to speak out about this abuse. Her story sparked a full-on barrage from the national media and outrage across the land.
While the movie is ostensibly about what happens when the legend overwhelms the man, the film fails to connect beyond the sense of moral outrage that permeated the entire affair. What we want is for Pacino to convey something deeper, something illuminating about the fall of the hero from the highest reaches of the gods. Is Paterno truly struggling and suffering over his willful and disgraceful inaction? If there is any expression of shame, it is in an overlong, sophomoric montage of Paterno moving about his bedroom and bathroom in apparent existential agony. It is a cheap and ineffective cliché and offers the viewer no connection to the man’s inner struggle. For much of the movie the looming game with Nebraska is all that seems to consume the coach. Apparently, the pathos, the agony of the scores of Sandusky’s young victims, means little to Paterno. He literally suggests to his admirers that they pray for the victims. Thoughts and prayers, oh my.
For Pacino, among the greatest actors of his generation, this performance falls a few key yards short of the goal line. In the end, Paterno was “exhausted, discouraged,” as he wrote about Aeneas, but he failed in the great struggle within himself to “renew any kind of faith in the fata, in the voices of his destiny.” If the film could have taken us there, it would have been a touchdown.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for nearly 30 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for The Arts Fuse. His new book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire will be published by McGraw-Hill in September.