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On HBO: PATERNO (2018)

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PATERNO
(US - 2018)

Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards. Cast: Al Pacino, Riley Keough, Kathy Baker, Greg Grunberg, Annie Parisse, Larry Mitchell, Steve Coulter, Kristen Bush, Ben Cook, Sean Cullen, Peter Jacobson, Tom Kemp, Michael Mastro, Jim Johnson, Murphy Guyer, Julian Gamble, Darren Goldstein, William Hill. (Unrated, 105 mins)

There was once an air of prestige surrounding HBO's original movies, particularly in the 1990s glory days which saw them regularly producing top-notch films like BARBARIANS AT THE GATE, AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN, THE LATE SHIFT, GIA, IF THESE WALLS COULD TALK, and INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE, just to name a few. For the last decade, the network has specialized in at least one fact-based drama or biopic every spring, with some highlights being 2010's YOU DON'T KNOW JACK, with Al Pacino as Jack Kevorkian, 2012's GAME CHANGE, chronicling the Republican side of the 2008 election with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin and Ed Harris as John McCain, and 2013's BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, with Michael Douglas as Liberace. The HBO spring movies have been slipping in recent years, content to rely on painstaking makeup jobs as opposed to the solid writing that made their 1990s films so memorable. 2013's PHIL SPECTOR is arguably the worst of the bunch, a slobbering Spector apologia from David Mamet, with Spector played by a frizzy wig attached to the head of Al Pacino. Last year's THE WIZARD OF LIES cast Robert De Niro in a perfect recreation of Ponzi scheme poster boy Bernie Madoff, but otherwise felt content to serve as a live-action version of Madoff's Wikipedia page, with director Barry Levinson indulging in some predictable Scorsese worship, right down to De Niro using some of his leftover Ace Rothstein schtick from CASINO.


Levinson also directs PATERNO, which goes through motions in such a "Movie of the Week" fashion that it doesn't even work up the enthusiasm to rip off Scorsese. PATERNO reunites the director with his YOU DON'T KNOW JACK star Pacino for a chronicle of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal that broke in late 2011 and quickly took down beloved, legendary football coach Joe Paterno, who died of lung cancer just two months later in January 2012. Pacino absolutely looks the part and is in appropriate "restrained Pacino" mode here. Where PATERNO drops the ball is that, like THE WIZARD OF LIES, it just goes through the story as if the script is a series of bullet points. There's nothing here you don't already know if you followed the story as it broke, and the filmmakers aren't really interested in going beneath the surface for anything substantive. It could've been so many things, especially if you're aware that when HBO originally announced the project way back in 2013, it was called HAPPY VALLEY (also the name of a 2014 documentary on the scandal from THE TILLMAN STORY director Amir Bar-Lev) and was to have been directed by Brian De Palma. Pacino was attached as Paterno from the start, and veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch (FARGO, ZODIAC) was cast as his longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who retired in 1999 and was ultimately convicted on 45 counts of child molestation and corruption of minors among other charges, with boys as young as 10 years of age. HAPPY VALLEY was put on hold during pre-production for "budget concerns" and was subsequently rechristened PATERNO when HBO gave it the greenlight once again in 2016, with Pacino but without De Palma and Lynch. It's telling that the film is now simply called PATERNO, since Sandusky (now played by eerie lookalike Jim Johnson) is seen fleetingly on maybe three occasions and has one audible line of dialogue. PATERNO opens with "JoePa" in a hospital MRI machine reflecting on the just-breaking scandal. And if you know the story, then you know the rest.


Levinson and writers Debora Cahn and John C. Richards could've taken just about any other approach and made a stronger film. They could've set it in 2001 when Paterno was allegedly first made aware of Sandusky's heinous crimes after then-graduate assistant coach Mike McQueary (briefly played here by Darren Goldstein) witnessed him raping a boy in the Penn State locker room, to which Sandusky still had access post-retirement, and would often take victims he procured from his Second Mile charity. Or, they could've focused on Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), the Patriot News reporter who first broke the story and encountered all manner of stonewalling, cover-ups, vanishing police reports, and a conspiracy of silence that would've made for a riveting investigative drama along the lines of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, ZODIAC, or SPOTLIGHT. In terms of setting the film in 2011, the crux of the story is "Did JoePa know or not?" and at that point in time, Ganim's pursuit of that answer and jumping every hurdle in her way would've been more compelling and revealing, at least as an examination of how football is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of Penn State, thus leading to the "protect the shield" attitude of the school, the students, and the community.


Or, they could've given Pacino something more to do that look doddering and befuddled as the 84-year-old Paterno. In a way, that's accurate, as Paterno clearly comes off as a man whose football-focused tunnelvision made him pretty much oblivious to, if not everything else around him, then at least the seriousness of Sandusky's crimes. This was a man who spent over 60 years in coaching and concerned himself with little else. One of the more interesting moments comes when he doesn't even get the optics of how bad it would look if he admitted waiting two days to tell the university higher-ups what he heard about Sandusky because he "didn't want to ruin" their weekend. More details like that would've helped, but scene after scene just has Pacino's JoePa puttering around, looking confused, and unable or unwilling to understand the gravity of the situation as if to say "Why is this happening to me?" But this approach is a cop-out: by never really substantively getting into JoePa's head and relegating Ganim to the sideline for much of the second half, PATERNO never has to take a stand, it never has to risk criticizing its subject, and it never has to do anything beyond ensuring that Pacino gets nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe next year. BARBARIANS AT THE GATE, AND THE BAND PLAYED ON, and their HBO contemporaries of the '90s didn't earn their deserved accolades by sidestepping the issues, pulling their punches, and letting the makeup department do the heavy lifting. PATERNO offers a generally fine Pacino performance that his fans will want to see, but this film should be more than a showcase for its iconic star.



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