There’s a moment midway through Paterno, HBO’s new film about the scandal surrounding child rapist and retired Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, at which its foremost question finally rings aloud. Sara Ganim (the rock-solid Riley Keough), a reporter at the Harrisburg, Pa. Patriot-News who later won a Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on the case, is conferring with her editor, David Newhouse (Peter Jacobson), on a piece laying out the known extent of Sandusky’s crimes and the subsequent cover-up by university officials. “You choose words, you choose your reality,” he explains, advising her to use the strongest possible language and writing “ANAL RAPE” on a whiteboard. “How many people used words that allowed other people to understand crimes against children as what knuckleheads do in locker rooms?”
That “locker-room talk” remains the justification for vile acts may explain why Paterno, from director Barry Levinson and writers Debora Cahn and John C. Richards, is far sharper on the (sexual) politics of language than on its title character’s “moral obligation”—another term of art—in the Sandusky affair. It’s as if, in attempting (perhaps valiantly, though rather falteringly) to hold simple judgments of Paterno (Al Pacino) at arm’s length, the film betrays the resistance to euphemism that its vigorous interest in indictments, news stories, op-eds, interviews, press conferences, prepared statements, and crisis managers suggests. Part of this is a function of the film’s structure: It begins with Paterno, frail and disoriented, shuffling down a corridor so blindingly white it might’ve been cribbed from science fiction, and flashes back to the hectic weeks surrounding the Penn State indictments by setting his memories dancing on the inside of an MRI machine. (Paterno, 85, died of lung cancer just two months after his firing as head coach.) Part of this is a function of Pacino’s imitation, which captures the man’s waning powers and his obsessive focus on football, yet fails to deliver any real insight as to his handling of Sandusky, both before and after the first allegations of molestation. If the film ultimately (and mercifully) retreats from the suggestion that Paterno was simply too distracted by the demands of coaching college football to notice—in fact, his language might be the most euphemistic of all—it nonetheless imbues “JoePa,” as he was known, with a sense of guilt, or at least recognition, that neither the man himself nor the film ever earns. “What am I, omniscient here?” he mutters at one point, denying that he knew, or should have known, anything about Sandusky’s crimes, though of course the ethics of facing evil aren’t only a question of knowledge. They’re a question of power.
This is where Paterno, despite its inert treatment of the towering figure at its center, begins to construct a subplot around him to match its two finest and most frenetic sequences, one set on the day of Paterno’s record-setting 409th win and the other on the night of his firing, which sent University Park into a convulsion of protests and riots. Between these near-bookends, their distinct forms of chaos edited with such fervor that they approach something like suspense, the film’s tension stems, in the main, from the Paterno family’s often baffling responses to the fallout from the indictments of Sandusky, Penn State president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schulz, and athletic director Tim Curley, all of whom were later convicted or pleaded guilty. (Notably, neither the perpetrator nor his abettors receives much attention here, save creepy flashes of Sandusky’s smile or the university leaders’ conspiratorial whispers; marginally more of the film’s running time is given over to survivor Aaron Fisher and his mother, Dawn, but Paterno, as its title indicates, is not any of their stories.) When Paterno’s son, Scott (Greg Gutman), an attorney, asks his father if he’s read the court filings, the response is so telling it might stand in for the whole: “They indictin’ me?” the coach says. “No.” “So.”
Paterno’s most grimly compelling through line, then, is not its portrait of a precipitous fall from grace, or even Ganim’s intrepid investigation, but the ways in which the Paternos, Penn State officials, the campus, the community, the media, the culture at large wall themselves off from—blind themselves to—the reality of the situation. Their careful language, their legalese, their euphemisms: These, as George Orwell understood, are often the germ of the greatest crimes, the Newspeak that suffocates justice in the name of protecting power. In sports reporters’ softball questions, anchors’ bland patter, and authorities’ reflexive no comments, in buried reports, purloined files, and most of all the Paternos’ own conversations, Paterno identifies and condemns the whitewashing of criminal conduct with conviction that its examination of its main character never musters. To watch Paterno’s wife, Sue (Kathy Baker), vomit upon reading the indictment, then deflect the issue of “moral obligation” to the district attorney, or to see the Paterno wince at the use of “fuck” or “rape” to describe the facts of the case, is to see that the problem of language is no abstraction, and no accident. You choose words, you choose your reality. And Paterno, by choosing euphemism, chose blindness.
Paterno airs Saturday, April 7 at 8 p.m. on HBO.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.