It can be helpful every now and then to watch a movie out of order. Catch the final act first, then get to the beginning and build-up to that climax later.
I caught the last 20 minutes of “Paterno” while on vacation, and just got around to the rest of it. Barry Levinson’s HBO film damns “JoPa” for all time with that dramatic climax, a myopic (literally) emperor (Al Pacino) whose dying thoughts were probably about all the times he was told, all the steps beyond “I did what the law/school regulations required” he avoided, all the ways he ignored the scores of Gerald Sandusky child rapes happening right under his nose, for years.
But the indictments don’t stop there. The culture of an institution of Top Ten/Big Ten football that is supposed to be a state college, a temple of learning and legal rectitude and ethical leadership is skewered — “loyalty” trumps all in this Trump-like “family business.”
One son (Scott Paterno, ably and haplessly played by Greg Grunberg) blows up in outrage at his father and family’s indifference, Paterno’s wife (Kathy Baker) lives, like her husband, in willful denial, son Jay and daughter Mary Kay (Annie Parisse) all are helpless in the face of their father’s stonewalling and their own unwillingness to challenge him.
The student body is skewered as well, their refusal to do what Paterno himself refused to do — embrace the facts, reason through Paterno’s complicity, accept responsibility and the rule of law.
And then there’s TV and the broadcast media’s chattering classes. The modest Harrisburg Patriot News and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Sara Ganim (Riley Keough) did their lonely work under threats and intimidation from the school, turn-a-blind-eye law enforcement and the enraged, circle-the-wagons community. Months passed after Ganim’s first story, a “kernel that didn’t pop,” as one person mocks her while working as a volunteer sideline marker (She graduated from Penn State) during a PSU football game.
Then the grand jury catches up with the story and all of a sudden, vultures from the previously compliant TV Industrial Sports Complex show up and leech on, desperate to steal her sources, more interested in “opinions” about the scandal than the newspaper’s steadfast, sturdy fact-based reporting.
Pacino is an American institution himself, and his subtle, focused and blithely arrogant performance is a wonder. It’s easy to see the cranky, defiant 84 year-old Paterno in his “Fire me? Good luck with that!”
Keough, the Elvis granddaughter slowly building a real actor’s resume (“Logan Lucky”), makes the most of her best role ever. Her Sara Ganim is young, impressionable, salty and defiant. There’s a righteousness that fills the performance that allows her to be outraged for us, when nobody around her would allow themselves that dignity.
The film, focusing only in the narrowest terms on a single victim, pans an implied spotlight across look-the-other-way journalism as it is practiced in the small college “towns” where football coaches are emperors — from Clemson to Tallahassee, State College to Columbus.
And it is re-opening the wounds of this debate. Read the moronic “user” pans of the movie on IMDb.com. The people who ensure that college and pro football are all the mouth-breathers of sports-talk radio yak about, through basketball, hockey and baseball seasons, are up in arms that the damned thing was filmed.
It’s a terrific movie, another feather in Levinson’s “Rain Man/Wag the Dog” hat and a “kernel that didn’t pop” in the broader culture’s worship of “Just win, baby” college athletics. Michigan State? You’ve probably watched this and quaked in your boots.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, descriptions of pedophilia, sex with children
Cast: Al Pacino, Kathy Baker, Riley Keough, Annie Parisse, Greg Grunberg, Larry Mitchell
Running time: 1:45