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Penn State Football: Paterno Film Is What You Make It

by on April 07, 2018 11:22 PM

Five years ago I sat across from screenwriter David McKenna as he sipped on a cup of coffee in downtown State College some cold and still early March morning. A movie was coming, about Joe Paterno, about Jerry Sandusky, about Penn State.

I asked him a question that was already on his mind.

How do you tell a story that hasn't finished? How do you tell a story that is missing parts?

"The answer is I don’t know," McKenna said. "Still being in the research phase, I don't know if this is going to be a movie anymore, if this is going to be a miniseries, how we're going to sell it, because it's so extensive and there is so much going on...."

Half a decade and a different screenwriter later, HBO's 'Paterno' only partially answered those questions and only partially tried to. A nearly two-hour long film bouncing between flashbacks inside of flashbacks in service of trying to tie together a sequence of events that walk a line between legal and moral obligations.

If supporters of Joe Paterno were looking for a movie that would exonerate him they did not find it. Likewise, those hoping for a professionally crafted public hanging of the former coach were left with heavy implication balanced by occasional spurts of plausible deniability. The movie's commitment to not committing was its most accurate depiction of a reality that is not binary and has not given the Paterno name the peace that lies with undeniable guilt or innocence.

In a thematic sense Al Pacino plays Paterno to near perfection, there are no flaws by an actor who has yet to lose a step. Even so the film is hindered by a certain sense that this story was told for the sake of telling it and in the real service of nothing. Unlike films such as Spotlight or All The President's Men, there is no end game moment to work towards as it pertains to Paterno. His story is the central piece to a film that throws harder punches at Graham Spanier and Gary Schultz in the periphery than it does the headliner himself.

Paterno is portrayed somewhere between knowing more than he's leading on and a man who fails to grasp the severity of his past actions. He is no hero but his villainy does not reach far past a certain level of negligence, how intentional that negligence might be, something the film does not answer, because it does not know.

Factually the movie takes its liberties and like all retold stories there are moments clearly created to prove a point, nearly all of the dialog in the Paterno home should be taken with some amount of salt beyond what has previously been confirmed.

The movie butchers Penn State's alma mater, certain aspects about football, locations of some events. People will dispute what the student riots were like and the localized importance of college football compared to everywhere else. It relies on actual footage to tell some moments and fabricated ones to tell others.

Ultimately though the overarching concepts paint a picture that has been told before and one that is not grossly unbelievable. A story that showcases all parties -in varying level of culpability- in a light that resulted with the rape and molestation of children. Something that occasionally feels glossed over by a need to cram Pacino into as many minutes as possible.

The Paterno family will (and has) dispute scenes and tone, as is their right, but the movie wasn't made as a documentary and it should be viewed as a larger story rather than minute by minute gospel. Those looking to defend Penn State will hang on to that fact, those looking to punish the university will cling to an overarching truth that Penn State failed those children.

Much like Paterno's legacy and culpability, the film is what you decide it is. Maybe a reason not to have made it at all.

However ultimately the answer to why this movie should have been made comes late, not months after Michigan State's own scandal and an ever present reminder of Penn State's. That the decisions of many, and the failure of a system at-large resulted in a continuing spree of crimes against children.

If the film is in service of anything, perhaps it's a reminder that the only people who can stop those crimes, are the adults who often fail to do so.



Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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