“Paterno” aims to tell the polarizing story of a legend’s fall, when the most essential question can never be answered.
The HBO movie directed by Barry Levinson debuts Saturday and stars Oscar winner Al Pacino as Joe Paterno, the Penn State coach whose career ended in scandal.
The movie chronicles a two-week stretch during the fall of 2011, starting with Penn State beating Illinois for the record 409th victory of Paterno’s career through the arrest of former longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to the first game played by Penn State after Paterno was fired.
The charges against Sandusky, who is serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence for sexual abuse of 10 boys, led to questions about what Paterno knew about Sandusky.
“You’re dealing with certain issues that are never going to be totally explained,” Levinson told the AP recently.
Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after he was fired on Nov. 9, 2011. He died January 22, 2012, at age 85.
Levinson said he was drawn to the story because of its Shakespearean qualities. Paterno coached Penn State for 46 seasons and built a virtually impeccable reputation as not just a Hall of Fame coach but also as an educator and humanitarian, Levinson said.
“What is this man and what are these contradictions?” Levinson said.
Levinson said research for the film came from Joe Posnanski’s book “Paterno,” Paterno’s son and former assistant coach Jay Paterno’s book “Paterno Legacy,” plus news reports. Sara Ganim, the former reporter for The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Sandusky scandal, was a consultant on the film.
Posnanski was working on a biography of Paterno, coincidentally, at the time of the Sandusky scandal and often had access to private discussions of the Paterno family.
Two Penn State administrators, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz – also portrayed in the film – pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child endangerment charges in 2017, leading prosecutors to drop three felony charges of child endangerment and conspiracy.
The school’s former president, Graham Spanier, went to trial and was convicted by a jury of misdemeanor child endangerment, but is free on bail while he appeals. At sentencing, he said he regretted that he “did not intervene more forcefully.”
Paterno was never charged. In the movie, Pacino portrays the coach as somewhat disinterested in initial reports of Sandusky’s arrest and the indictment against him, and then confused as to why it would involve him. As the story erupts into national news and engulfs Penn State and Paterno over the course of three days, Pacino portrays the coach as being so focused on football that he failed to take stronger action when a young assistant coach complained to him about Sandusky’s encounter with a boy in a team shower years earlier.
When asked by a state prosecutor during 2011 grand jury testimony what the assistant, Mike McQueary, told him, Paterno replied that he said Sandusky “was fondling, whatever you might call it – I’m not sure what the term would be – a young boy.”
Supporters of Paterno still feel as if his reputation was unfairly tarnished by the Sandusky scandal, while others are staunch in their belief that Paterno shares blame.
Levinson was not looking to change minds.
“This is not a courtroom. You can embrace it. You can watch and not necessarily agree,” he said. “I’m laying this out in this particular fashion without a particular agenda to it.”
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