On Saturday night, HBO aired “Paterno,” a film about Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and the two weeks surrounding Jerry Sandusky’s indictment on charges of sexual abuse of minors. While the decision to focus on Joe Paterno rather than others more closely related to the events may have seemed like an interesting artistic decision, it leads the film to be fairly uninteresting as the man they focus on is, truthfully, uninteresting.
Al Pacino plays Paterno and while it seems like he delivers a faithful performance as the former head football coach, that does not make Paterno any more interesting. The film paints him as a man interested only in football and, while that is true based on the accounts of those in the Penn State community, it largely ignores the larger issue. There was a moral obligation that Paterno should have had (which Kathy Baker’s Sue Paterno attempts to highlight) that is often pushed aside. It appears the film wants to simultaneously make Paterno out to be a man that only cared about football but also knew enough about the abuse to have done more. This choice ultimately never quite explores the truly horrific nature of what happened, nor cultural conversation it incited across the nation on the role of sports in modern society.
The only slight glimpse the film gives into this side of the scandal is through the only Sandusky victim given screen time in the film, Aaron Fisher, played by Ben Cook. Fisher is someone who has talked publicly about the abuse at great lengths and his story is one who could have effectively highlighted the worst parts of the scandal. Not focusing on the victims makes this a football story rather than a story about the tragic event that it was in the victim's and community's life.
This decision also forces writers Debora Cahn and John C. Richards to focus more on the national deception on what happened, rather than the impact on the locals. This was a scandal that caused people to question a man who had spoken his entire career about how he was working to create exceptional young men. The film makes it seem like everyone in the Penn State community, minus a few detractors shown sparingly, felt that Paterno did nothing wrong. To this day, that is still the perception surrounding Penn State, its students and its community at large. Largely ignoring how an entire community’s moral high ground could be destroyed and just making the students and the area seem like defenders of child assault is a safer decision than it needed to be and ultimately turns a true tragedy into an easily marketable Hollywood biopic.
There are also other issues throughout the movie such as strange dream sequences that take the viewer out of the movie. But there is a far more interesting and compelling story to be told here that does not involve Joe Paterno. Whether or not he should have done more will be debated until the end of time by people nationally and especially at Penn State. A focus on the community and the victims would have poignantly touched on what made the event so horrific in the first place. Instead, it devolves the complex and tragic events of this story into the same black-and-white, "football culture taken too far" tale that paints Paterno as something more than just a great football coach, rather than painting him as the simple morally-wrong bystander that he was.
David Arroyo is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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