Constantly passionate despite feeling elongated, “Paterno” crafts a compelling portrait of the legendary coach and the infamous scandal that derailed a longstanding football tradition. Given the talent involved, it’s no surprise that “Paterno” is good. But the poignancy and meticulous attention spent on character development is completely out of left field, especially for a made-for-premium-TV movie.
“Paterno” whisks us back seven years to 2011. The sexual crimes of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky have just come to light. University regents are debating emergency manuevers in dim-lit concrete hallways. And sitting from the press box above, a position where others can not physically touch him but can still appreciate his legacy, is Joe Paterno (Al Pacino), the elderly coach who will try to convince the world he did nothing wrong in his handling of Sandusky.
At this point in Pacino’s storied career, its hard for him to ever vitalize a character without us ever seeing the actor underneath. We don’t see Paterno, we just see Pacino as Paterno, even though he’s doing quite a stellar job at it. Same goes for Riley Keough, who plays the inexperienced yet tenacious reporter Sara Ganim. Keough isn’t as Oscar-worthy as Pacino, but when her character vigorously interviews victims and courageously clashes with her newspaper editor, we still can’t help but see the “Logan Lucky” sister and “The Girlfriend Experience” escort serenading us through this story.
It’s the performances of Paterno’s extended family that bring some of the most cathartic moments in the film. Scott Paterno (Greg Grunberg) desperately wants to bring his father to the reality of the situation, while his brother Jay Paterno (Larry Mitchell) is more concerned with damage control and Mary Kay Paterno (Annie Parisse) wishes to serve as thoughtful mediator. Even in the wake of the fact that her own children might have been abused, Joe’s wife Sue Paterno (Kathy Baker) still valiantly defends her husband, even with the growing guilt that what he is not wholly innocent.
“Paterno” could have been 30 minutes shorter and often tries to be too avant-garde with its bizarre editing and morose score. But the film still captures the drama and intrigue of powerful individuals desperately defending their beloved institutions, places and locations where there is supposedly a soul lurking underneath the bricks and concrete. And in that human fallacy where we love an authority figure or a university more than we ever should, “Paterno” devises a meaningful message that is ripe for entertainment.