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'Paterno' review: Six days in the life of a scandal

Kathy Baker and Al Pacino star in HBO's

Kathy Baker and Al Pacino star in HBO's "Paterno." Credit: Kathy Baker and Al Pacino star in HBO’s “Paterno.”

THE MOVIE “Paterno”

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Saturday on HBO

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Months before his death from lung cancer, Joe Paterno (Al Pacino) is set to become the winningest coach in college football history, just as a sexual abuse scandal engulfs his former defensive assistant Jerry Sandusky (Jim Johnson) and Penn State. As the indictment is handed down in late 2011, Paterno; his wife, Sue (Kathy Baker); daughter, Mary Kay (Annie Parisse); and Paterno’s adult sons hunker down in their family home to figure out what to do next. Meanwhile, Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), the Harrisburg Patriot-News reporter who broke the news about Sandusky, scrambles to cover the exploding story. Barry Levinson directed this film, written by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards.

MY SAY Paterno died Jan. 22, 2012, but his legacy — at least this part of it — is hardly finished. What did he know, and when did he know it, remain bitterly divisive questions among some Penn State fans and family members who still want to clear his name. A variation on those questions is as fresh as yesterday, too, particularly at Michigan State, where institutional responsibility (or culpability) lie at the core of another decades-long sexual abuse scandal — Dr. Larry Nassar’s assaults of more than 160 female gymnasts under his care. How could university officials not know about a crime of this magnitude?

The timing of “Paterno” therefore is nearly perfect. But what about everything else? Levinson decided to frame the film over a week’s span in early November 2011, leading up to Paterno’s firing. Over these six days, his reputation hangs in suspended animation. He’s either about to become college football’s pre-eminent coach, or about to become the disgraced coach who did what was only minimally necessary when first told of Sandusky’s behavior in 2001.

We know the outcome, but “Paterno” makes the case that Paterno himself almost certainly did not. Pacino’s “Joe Pa” is doddering, guileless and largely inattentive. His football memory remains intact, while his memory for everything else is fallible — or worse, almost gone. “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast,” he reasonably concludes, until reminded that the guilty often fall back on that line. Mostly, he seems like he’s a sweet old man who just wants to get back to America’s game.

Of course, it’s also a shell game, because viewers are left to guess who Paterno once was, while they’re seduced by someone as he is in this precarious moment. Keough’s intrepid Sara Ganim is seduced and shocked, too, when he’s fired, because she shares in our point of view.

But what about the past — or that “What did he know and when did he know it?”

“Paterno” carefully confines itself to the record, never drifting off into speculation or supposition. A few flashbacks pull viewers back 10 years, to huddled conversations among university officials in darkened hallways. Not a part of those, Paterno remains as distant and unknowable then as in 2011.

Instead, “Paterno” carefully, methodically, backs viewers — and Paterno — into a corner from which there is no escape. How could he have not known? How could he have not done more? Offering no solace for fans or family, “Paterno” is ultimately both a damning portrait and conclusion.

BOTTOM LINE Brilliant as ever, Pacino is the master trickster who manages to both demonize and humanize Paterno.

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