One of the best “Saturday Night Live” bits last year was a fake commercial for an Ivanka Trump fragrance called Complicit. It was a funny, razor-sharp reminder of the guilt of those who don’t necessarily commit a crime but allow it to happen. HBO’s “Paterno” is another pointed take on complicity, without the funny, of course. Starring Al Pacino as Joe Paterno and directed by Barry Levinson, the film is a quietly damning portrait of those at Penn State, and specifically its beloved star football coach, who turned a blind eye to one-time defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s sex crimes against children.
The strongest aspect of the film, which premieres Saturday night at 8, is its stealth approach. For much of the story, you’re not quite sure whether Levinson and screenwriters Debora Cahn and John C. Richards are clear on Paterno’s responsibility regarding the Sandusky scandal. You wonder if “Paterno” is trying to take a step toward rehabilitating the image of the late coach, the “winningest” coach in college football history. It’s only later in the movie that the script, and Pacino’s fine performance, edge slowly but surely into the issue of Paterno’s legal and moral liability.
Pacino’s Paterno is almost endearing in his football geekery. When we first see him, coaching from the booth after a hip injury, we see just how obsessive and shrewd his focus on the game can be. He’s not cold, but he projects disinterest in anything and anyone who isn’t connected to the gridiron. At moments you even wonder if this guy understands what Sandusky had been doing. He makes one comment to his family when, after putting it off with typical avoidance, he finally reads the list of accusations against Sandusky in an indictment: “What is sodomy?”
And then so many of the people who venerate “JoePa” in the Penn State community refuse to acknowledge his part in the Sandusky tragedy. At various points after the Sandusky indictment, groups of supportive students stand outside his house chanting his name, bent on his innocence. Like so many, they are blinded by their reverence for the man and their love of football victories. But you can see, if you watch Pacino closely, glimmers of self-awareness despite the adoring crowds and his protective wife, Sue (Kathy Baker). As the movie heads toward the end, Paterno can no longer fully deny to himself his own complicity. Through his hazy consciousness, looking back at his old notes on the times Sandusky had been investigated internally in the past, he imagines the danger he allowed to continue. It’s not exactly a full revelation of responsibility so much as an inkling.
“Paterno” has a bit of “Spotlight” in it, as we follow reporter Sara Ganim (Riley Keough) from the Patriot-News in Pennsylvania. Months before the indictment, she’d written a piece about a grand jury investigation of Sandusky, but no one paid much attention. Now that the news is national, she’s in the limelight, using her connections to victims to get their stories out. Her plot line is a familiar one, but it once again serves as a reminder of the critical importance of local news coverage at a time when it is in jeopardy. Ultimately, Ganim and other members of the Patriot-News staff won a Pulitzer Prize for their Sandusky coverage.
These days, complicity is a common theme in the news — in the #MeToo movement, in particular, which has found so many people taking a passive approach to the harassment and abuse they’ve known about, and in the political realm, where many Democrats use the word in terms of the silence of Republican leaders. “Paterno” is a small movie that tells a story many of us already know, but it nonetheless makes its big point strategically and effectively.
Starring: Al Pacino, Riley Keough, Kathy Baker, Peter Jacobson, Annie Parisse, Greg Grunberg, Larry Mitchell, Benjamin Cook
On: HBO, Saturday at 8 p.m.