HBO announced over the weekend a spring premiere date for its long-rumored, already controversial biopic Paterno. The network has typically debuted its big-budget, original productions like The Normal Heart and last year’s critically acclaimed, Bernie Madoff biopic The Wizard of Lies over the Memorial Day weekend, so I’d anticipate the same for Paterno.
If you can’t wait four months, spoiler: Paterno will more than likely be awful.
I’ll start with the less serious of the two factors that have drawn me to this conclusion. Al Pacino is a legend who descended into self-parody long ago. He’s talented enough that his outlandish performances can turn lousy scripts like The Devil’s Advocate and 88 Minutes into entertaining schlock, but that’s not the approach HBO needs to take. Not with this subject matter.
Pacino can still deliver strong, serious performances without devolving into the cartoonish ranting for which he’s been known since Scent of a Woman. His starring role in Christopher Nolan’s vastly underrated Insomnia ranks among my favorite performances of his illustrious career.
Meanwhile, HBO already struck gold with Pacino in 2013 as the titular Phil Spector, another biopic covering a different but still very much real, very recent and very horrific crime. But then, Pacino’s frenetic energy fit the outlandish behavior of Phil Spector. The music mogul-turned-convicted murderer could not contrast the late Joe Paterno more starkly.
Paterno’s outwardly stoic demeanor helped craft the almost universally held image of him before Jerry Sandusky’s arrest in November 2011. The coach’s image fundamentally changed at that moment until his death, of which the sixth anniversary is a week away, and in the years since. How does Pacino balance the ideal of Paterno so many embraced for almost six decades with the
Paterno isn’t Pacino’s first time playing a football coach, which I have read mentioned a surprising number of times in reference to the casting choice. Pacino did indeed play the fictional Tony D’Amato in the 1999 Oliver Stone film, Any Given Sunday. Opinions on the movie vary, but Pacino’s rousing speech ahead of the climax is one of the better such scenes in sports cinema.
However, Paterno isn’t a sports movie, and Joe Paterno isn’t a fictional character.
It’s true football is at the crux of the crimes perpetrated at Penn State. Were Jerry Sandusky a janitor, a security guard, a professor or perhaps even an administrator at the university, very few would have gone to the lengths in which some went in covering up the coach’s depravity and evilness.
To that end, the history of Penn State football — which is the history of Joe Paterno — plays a critical role. Details must be precise, and Paterno is not off to the best of the starts, with photos of a wildly incorrect interpretation of the coach’s statute surfacing.
The statue plays a critical role in the real-life Paterno saga. Its removal in July 2012 underscored the same tumultuous issue sure to plague this movie: What do we really know about the late Penn State football coach?
Critics of the statue’s removal still today downplay Mike McQueary’s testimony, recounting a 2001 conversation with Paterno about Sandusky’s molestation of a boy in the Penn State locker room. Paterno’s most ardent supporters champion the decades-long legacy that preceded Sandusky’s arrest, more than a decade after the defensive coordinator left the program.
What Paterno knew and how much he knew is his lasting legacy. How does that translate to film?
HBO has successfully depicted real-life monsters with the aforementioned Spector and Madoff biopics, but both movies were made with the benefit of lengthy trials at which the subjects were carefully examined and detailed records kept. Paterno’s death shortly after Sandusky’s arrest provides no such clarity.
Director Barry Levinson and the crew responsible for the biopic are in a difficult position, which is really no surprise. The original concept spawned from sports journalist’s Joe Posnanski’s biography of the coach, released less than two months after the statue’s removal and eight months following Paterno’s death.
Met with harsh blowback, Posnanski’s book was criticized as a relentless, failed defense of the coach. Posnanski’s peers advocated for scrapping the book altogether. The filmmakers now see similar blowback, following HBO’s announced premiere with defenses of the movie’s agenda — specifically, that there is none.
There may be no agenda, but is there a point? It’s difficult to imagine this as any more than a chapter of Posnanski’s book on a different medium, in which I agree with Jeff Pearlman’s assessment of the literary version: Scrap it.