On paper, it seems like a surefire winner to have an acting legend like Al Pacino take on the role of college football’s winningest coach.
Pacino exudes gravitas for days and it doesn’t hurt at all that the Academy Award-winning actor bears a striking resemblance to the 84-year-old sports icon.
But the execution leaves a little bit to be desired as Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson’s biopic of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno for HBO Films simply misses that extra gear it needed to truly encompass such a complex story.
Told over the course of several weeks in late 2011, “Paterno” follows “JoePa” and Penn State University officials immediately following sexual abuse of a child charges being filed against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
For as much as the film is about Sandusky’s actions and who Penn State knew about them, there’s little of Sandusky on screen although his presence looms large throughout especially within Paterno’s psyche.
It’s nearly impossible to get a sense of Sandusky as a man or understand how events unfolded. But for Levinson, that really isn’t the point of “Paterno.”
The film was made for, and viewers turned into see, Pacino’s interpretation of a beloved sports hero’s fall from grace. The choices the veteran actor makes with the roll are surprisingly nuanced.
Gone are the traditional speeches of bravado that usually accompany a weighty Pacino performance. The boisterous personalities he’s known for have taken a backseat to a somber, measured turn as Paterno.
Perhaps the best, or at least the most human, aspect of his performance is how heavy the weight of the scandal increasingly takes its toll on Paterno.
It’s almost as if Pacino what’s his shoulders and sags his physicality gradually over the course of the film to help reflect the inner turmoil setting in. There’s a lot that isn’t said in Pacino’s performance, but so much hiding in plain sight as well.
Riley Keough anchors the film’s other major plot line as a young investigative journalist trying to stay ahead of other news outlets while sensitively and judiciously telling the story of Sandusky’s victims. She offers a stabilizing, even-keeled effort that paces major sections of “Paterno” without being too obtrusive.
A solid supporting cast lifts Levinson’s feature when neither Pacino or Keough are the main focus of the storyline. However, the relative anonymity and lack of star power here makes it difficult for audiences to keep track of the film’s many moving parts.
Much of “Paterno” jumps around at a haphazard pace thanks to a muddled, uneven screenplay from writers Debora Cahn and John C. Richards.
Though events unfold in linear fashion, audiences have to scramble to orient themselves scene to scene as Levinson hops from Paterno himself to Penn State officials scheming in the background to an investigative journalist to the gridiron at a frantic pace.
“Paterno” attempts to say a lot of things about a lot of different subject matters – the importance of the press, moral versus legal culpability, what defines a man’s legacy. None of them are achieved particularly well.
The Sandusky scandal at Penn State, especially as it relates to the tarnishing of Paterno, is handled significantly better in the highly engaging, well constructed documentary “Happy Valley,” now available on streaming platforms.
It’s good that outlets like HBO Films are taking chances on long-form narrative features like “Paterno” and the upcoming “Fahrenheit 451” starring Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon instead of bloating their budgets for an Oscar season race or turning the whole project into a 10-episode mini-series.
As quality artists increasingly leave film for television ventures, maintaining a solid mid-tier of feature-length films is critical but you keep Hollywood from homogenizing movies to action blockbuster spectacles.
With a timely plot and solid performance by Pacino, “Paterno” definitely deserves consideration for viewers’ next movie night at home.