In Barry Levinson’s “Paterno,” premiering Saturday on HBO, Al Pacino plays Joe Paterno, the late Penn State University football head coach whose illustrious career, and life, ended tangled in the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case.
Following 2010’s “You Don’t Know Jack,” about “suicide doctor” Jack Kevorkian, and 2013’s “Phil Spector,” ( which Levinson executive-produced, it’s the third collaboration between the two Oscar winners on the subject of old men and the law, responsibility and culpability.
Paterno was fired in November 2011, days after Sandusky’s indictment on 52 counts of child molestation became national news. (Sandusky had been a longtime assistant coach at Penn State, but — unusually — was given access to its facilities afterward; some of the abuse occurred there.)
The sin of Paterno was one of omission, whether willful or distracted: He was a bystander whose failure was to stand by, once he had dutifully passed on an early report of questionable behavior to his superiors, while Sandusky continued for years to prey upon children. (Sandusky himself is barely present in this story — “glimpsed” would be overstating the case — just a bland impression of evil, haunting the edges of Paterno’s recollections.)
Framed as a flashback from inside an MRI machine, the film covers the brief period from Paterno’s record-setting 409th gridiron victory, which made him “the winningest coach in the history of Division One football,” to the immediate aftermath of his firing. (There was a riot; JoePa, as Paterno was affectionately called, was, we’re told, a “god” on campus.)
Flashbacks within the flashback, which might or might not be reliable memories, flesh it out, while the film breaks away at times from Paterno to follow Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), who broke the story of the Sandusky investigation six months before the indictment, provoking little or negative reaction.
It looks in as well on some of the Penn State officials who more actively colluded in keeping Sandusky’s crimes under wraps. (Their cases — on counts of grand jury perjury, conspiracy, obstruction of justice and child endangerment — were concluded only last year, with convictions, jail time and fines.)
The relative modesty of the production keeps the focus on human interaction; the best scenes are those with Paterno at home among his grown sons and daughters (played by Greg Grunberg, Annie Parisse and Larry Mitchell), wife Sue (Kathy Baker) and Penn State football “branding director” Guido D’Elia (Michael Mastro), whom I mistook for a member of the family. Here, Pacino becomes the still center of the action, as his nearest and dearest argue and strategize and generally try to get a hold on things, while Paterno swings from indifference to annoyance to a glimmer of understanding. Mostly he wants to be left alone to concentrate on the next big game.
Pacino’s performance is interesting in its smallest gestures — particularly in its smaller gestures — and unusually interior and contained. (And contained Pacino is the best Pacino, your love of “Scarface” notwithstanding.) Most of it he plays seated, or on his back; Paterno was 84 at the time, and had suffered multiple leg injuries. His Paterno has no love for Sandusky (or any of his Penn State colleagues, seemingly), but he doesn’t really want to talk, or even to know — he is continually putting off reading the Sandusky indictment, a copy of which son Scott (Grunberg) has printed for his convenience.
The film is watchable, certainly, but also wayward. Its effects feel scattered, its points lost as the story looks here, looks there; “Paterno” has many things to show you, but less to say. Some scenes are more suggestive of other movies — there are no lack of films about crimes and cover-ups and victims bravely speaking truth to power — than a window into real life.
Late in the film, Paterno finally seems to face facts, as the camera swirls about him and the cuts come fast and the soundtrack fills up with mad strings and the play-by -play of the first Nittany Lions game to be played without him in years — it’s the film’s “Lear’s mad scene,” and wound up nearly the point of comedy.
“A crime against children happened; why the heck is anybody talking about Joe Paterno?” one character wonders. It’s a question that might well be asked of “Paterno” itself.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd