Moral confusion reigns at the heart of new HBO film “Paterno,” as viewers get a family living room view of the famed Penn State football coach trying to deal with the fallout as a former longtime assistant coach becomes embroiled in a child sex scandal that rocks education and an insular college town.
The drama debuts on Saturday and stars Al Pacino as the late Joe Paterno. It offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the Paterno home during a weeks-long media siege as the family grapples with its sudden fall from grace.
“Here’s a man who talked about integrity, and yet this happened,” director Barry Levinson told Reuters. “So, what did he know? What didn’t he know?”
Levinson explores the paradox of a coach who professed and lived by the high moral code he also demanded of his players, yet failed to act on signs assistant Jerry Sandusky had been abusing boys.
“Paterno” sets forth the questions but gives no answers.
“Human behavior is always more complicated,” the Oscar-winning “Rain Man” director said. “There are things that we may never understand, but that’s the part of what makes it interesting.”
The film tackles several narratives ranging from university administrators who ignored complaints against Sandusky to young reporter Sara Ganim who broke the story and the emotional trauma of a young Sandusky victim who comes forward.
Levinson and screenwriter Debora Cahn save their great conundrums for Paterno, college football’s winningest coach who in the span of a few autumn weeks in 2011 went from celebrated to fired.
They show Paterno detached from his job’s details, and confused and struggling to grasp the nature of Sandusky’s decades-long crimes.
“What is sodomy?” Paterno asks his wife while reading the criminal complaint that led to Sandusky’s conviction on 45 counts of sexual abuse.
The film recreates known and alleged instances when Paterno either ignored signs of Sandusky’s behavior that he became aware of, or failed to follow up after reporting to superiors.
Paterno died from lung cancer in January 2012 at age 85.
Cahn believes the lessons of Paterno’s story mirror the tsunami of years-old misconduct allegations in the #MeToo movement.
“What kind of responsibility does each of us bear as individuals who are near events that we think might be fishy, but we aren’t sure,” Cahn said. “Do we push further? Do we investigate more? Or do we hope somebody else is going to?”