HBO’s film, Paterno, recounts the Penn State sex-abuse scandal that rocked the football-obsessed institution, looking through the lens of head coach Joe Paterno, portrayed by Al Pacino.

Director Barry Levinson focuses in squarely on the octogenarian who maintained near total control of the Penn State football program for decades making him a revered figure on campus.

A two week period encompasses the film, during the 2011 indictment of Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on over 50 counts of abuse of minors, many of them left in his care at the Second Mile charity he founded in 1977. Sandusky’s conduct is poured over in the film, but mostly as it relates to Paterno’s actions after the fact. Sandusky as a figure is largely absent from the action which seems slightly odd. Sandusky’s victims are also mostly left out of the picture, although Aaron Fisher (Benjamin Cook) is one victim whom gets light shone on him.

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This however, is the portrait of a fallen figure. It is a tale about how inaction leads to further tragedy for vulnerable children who should have been protected. The inaction here is that of Paterno, who was alerted early on to incidents of sexual abuse by his assistant coach and did little with the information he had. As a powerful figure at Penn State, Paterno’s voice carried great weight and had he acted proactively when allegations first came to light, others might have been spared and Sandusky would likely have been removed from his influential position atop one of the most prestigious sports programs in the country.

But Paterno didn’t act. Instead, he let football and the anatomy of winning rule his life. The game was Paterno’s entire purpose, creating a myopic view of the world around him. Sandusky was the true villain, but Paterno was effectively his enabler, all in the name of football. Paterno was fired by Penn State following Sandusky’s indictment and died of cancer in 2012.

Pacino’s Paterno, with yellow-tinted spectacles and an insular demeanor, succeeds in this role, capturing the pathetic nature of a man that struggles to see past himself and the game he worships.

Riley Keough as Sara Ganim – the intrepid local reporter who relentlessly chased down the Sandusky story, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for her efforts – turns in a strong performance.

All things considered, Paterno works one one level, in giving insight into the mind and character of a flawed figure. However, an opportunity seems missed to devote more time to the true victims of this tragedy – the students and children from the Second Mile whose lives were irreparably changed by the darkness of one man and a system that valued football over lives.


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