Why "Paterno" on HBO is worth watching--once

I put off “Paterno” for the same reason I didn’t rush out to see “Schindler’s List.”


It was on my “to do” list, I suppose, like a colonoscopy, but that doesn’t mean one can’t concoct legitimate reasons for procrastination.

I recorded “Paterno” the night it premiered on HBO, then watched it linger in my queue box. It stared back at me from a menu list of candy-coated confections that included “House Hunters International” and “Drunk History.”

What was I afraid of?

One, you need to prep for something so distasteful that you know going in is going to be upsetting. For me it meant setting aside two hours, alone, on an empty stomach.

Recently, looking for something else in my garage, I found the book penned years ago by Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant at the center of this pond-scum story. It was an advance copy of his feel-good memoir, sent by the publisher looking for a review in the Los Angeles Times.

Thank God we weren’t blogging back then and I buried what turned out to be garbage into a plastic bin.

The book, incredibly in retrospect, was titled “Touched.”

Or, perhaps, Sandusky was perversely daring us to find him out, like the serial killer who leaves cryptic clues for the chief of police.

I covered the horrors at Penn State from the West Coast, way over the back-yard fence. I had visited Happy Valley numerous times, however, and had generally venerated Coach Joe Paterno’s accomplishments in his chosen profession.

On the eve of his 300th career win, in fact, I flew cross country to profile Paterno for the paper, only to be greeted by his legendary cantankerousness.

I found myself, on the practice field, begging for five minutes. Paterno was having none of it until, as he walked away, I threw down my last, pathetic, sympathy card.

“But Joe,” I said, “I flew all the way from L.A. for this story.”

Paterno paused, turned around, squinted at me from behind those thick lenses and said “You came all the way from L.A. to see me?”

I got my five minutes.

Another reason I put off “Paterno” was fear that, despite Al Pacino being in the lead role, the movie would be a cartoon-ish, cinematic disaster.

I couldn’t get the thought out of my head of John Goodman, also a fine actor, playing Babe Ruth in the movies.

“Paterno” had its work cut out and I didn’t see any possible way it could substantially deliver.

So, anyway, I finally watched the movie Thursday morning (April 19), alone, on an empty stomach, preparing for the worst.

It was disturbing, unnerving but, for what it was, very good. There was no way to encapsulate a story so complex in two hours without a tight construct.

Director Barry Levinson focused on the climatic days in November of 2011 when Sandusky’s horrid story made national news at the same time Paterno was chasing career win No. 409.

Al Pacino is terrific as Penn State Coach Joe Paterno. But nobody played Paterno like Joe.

The linchpin of the movie is Pacino, who captures Paterno as well you can a person so public and so recently alive. The other characters, aside from the solid portrayals of reporter Sara Ganim (Riley Keough) and Scott Paterno (Greg Grunberg), seemed more like ornamental pieces.

The movie opens with Paterno being delivered into a CT-scan machine, just as the Sandusky story is raging, for what would be a cancer diagnosis.

Paterno would die a few months later, January of 2012, but we don’t know that then. Delivery into the scan machine is a vehicle to allow Paterno to reflect on his six-decades as head coach and relationship with Sandusky, his longtime assistant.

Pacino, I thought, effectively captured the essence of an aging man losing grip on power while harboring deep, conflicted, tormented feelings about what he knew about Sandusky--and when he knew it.

The character Pacino portrayed theatrically suggests, accurately in my summation, what most of us thought to be true. That Paterno knew more about Sandusky, going back years, than he ever revealed to his superiors, or the Grand Jury. The Paterno revealed in the movie was approaching 85 and increasingly doddering and confused, in sharp contrast to the Ivy League-educated mastermind of a college football dynasty.

Pacino’s portrayal also allows room for those who think Paterno was so old-school uncomfortable with the subject of child molestation that he did what men of his generation might have done: report the bare minimum to his immediate supervisors and then get back to the film room.

"I've got Nebraska a week from today," Paterno says in the early throes of the Sandusky scandal. "They're 7-1, just so you know."

This is a point of the film where those around Paterno know what's coming down while Joe lives in film-room denial. This would change.

Pacino’s Paterno ultimately comes to flash-back understand that his legacy has unraveled and that he, on his death bed, will take some responsibility to his grave.

As one who reported on this story, even from afar, I’m not sure I needed to see a movie made about Paterno and Sandusky.

The story, in real time, was powerful enough as grotesque Reality TV. Sara Ganim’s bravery in reporting earned her a Pulitzer Prize. The full scope of story—the entire bloody mess—is in her daily accounts.

Pacino was terrific but no one played the part of Paterno better than real-life Joe. And who is creepier in the world than actual Jerry Sandusky?

Since HBO insisted on pressing into production, though, I thought it did a commendable job with subject matter I didn’t necessarily need to have re-hashed.

HBO offered an honest-brokered snap shot of a much larger horror that no made-for-TV movie was going to do justice.

Ken Burns might have needed 20 episodes to get within field goal range of what really happened.

If “Paterno” was a movie that had to be made well, fine, it was well made.

And I watched it: begrudgingly...once...before breakfast.