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‘Paterno’: Al Pacino back in top form as the football legend tainted by scandal

While his wife Sue (Kathy Baker) is horrified by child sex abuse allegations against her husband's former assistant, the coach (Al Pacino) just seems befuddled by them in "Paterno." | HBO

While his wife Sue (Kathy Baker) is horrified by child sex abuse allegations against her husband's former assistant, the coach (Al Pacino) just seems befuddled by them in "Paterno." | HBO

From 1971 to 1983, Al Pacino created one iconic role after another in films great and good.

“Panic in Needle Park.” “Godfather” I and II. “Serpico.” “Dog Day Afternoon.” “… And Justice for All.” “Scarface.”

Over the last decade or so, the 77-year-old Pacino has appeared in films such as “The Son of No One,” “Jack and Jill,” “Stand Up Guys,” “Manglehorn,” “Danny Collins,” “Misconduct” and “Hangman.”

Don’t feel bad if you haven’t seen any of those movies. I’ve seen all of them and I can barely remember half of them.

Some of those films are solid, as was Pacino’s work in them. But it’s been a long time since he was PACINO GREAT in memorable material — as Will Dormer opposite Robin Williams in “Insomnia” (2002), as Roy Cohn in the HBO miniseries “Angels in America” (2003) and as Jack Kevorkian in the HBO movie “You Don’t Know Jack” (2010).

Now, with the title role in HBO’s unsettling and riveting and scathing “Paterno,” Pacino reminds us of why he’s a singular talent.

Sporting Paterno’s thick, graying hair; oversized, tinted glasses; and maybe a little bit of prosthetics, Pacino bears a striking enough physical resemblance to the legendary Penn State coach whose final days were embroiled in a horrific controversy. But what’s most striking about the performance is how Pacino captures the complexities and contradictions in a man who was considered a football god and a near-saint by nearly everyone for the better part of six decades — until the questions about Paterno’s actions (or lack thereof) in reaction to the sex abuse allegations against his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

What did JoePa know and when did he know it? And when he knew for sure something was terribly rotten in his kingdom, why didn’t he do more to put an end to it?

Directed by the veteran Barry Levinson (“Rain Man,” “Wag the Dog,” “The Natural,” “Good Morning, Vietnam”), “Paterno” has the gravitas and scope of a major theatrical release. The film kicks off like a classic sports biopic, with Penn State taking on Illinois in a Big 10 matchup as Paterno seeks his record-setting 409th win. (JoePa is seen in the coach’s booth, overseeing his team from above due to a recent hip injury.) At this point, Paterno is pure legend — a beloved father figure with his own bronze statue near the football stadium.

When sex abuse charges are leveled against Sandusky (Jim Johnson) for abusing children over a period of 15 years, and indictments are brought against other Penn State officials for failing to report allegations against Sandusky a full decade before Sandusky’s arrest, the Penn State community and the entire nation is stunned and outraged.

Paterno seems more befuddled and distracted than anything else. He’s either unwilling or incapable of addressing the scandal head on.

“I got Nebraska one week from today, they’re 7-1,” says the coach.

When told former athletic director Tim Curley and PSU vice-president Gary Schultz had been charged, Paterno says, “For what?”

For failing to protect children, the coach is told. Did you read the indictment?

The coach’s response: “No. I’ve got Nebraska, a week from today. … I’m not a judge. No, I didn’t read it. How am I gonna read it? I gotta get prepared. … You can’t get worked up. You get hysterical every time your team is attacked …”

Paterno’s grown sons are outraged when people start asking questions about whether the coach could have done more to prevent these horrific crimes. His wife Sue (Kathy Baker in a heartbreakingly effective performance), however, while fiercely protective of Joe, is devastated for the victims, and pressures Joe to be honest about his memories. She also reminds him when their boys were just kids, they were around Sandusky all the time. They, too, could have been victimized by the monster.

Paterno’s daughter also challenges him about his recollections regarding a boy who said Sandusky molested him.

“What did the kid say happened?”

“I didn’t talk to the kid,” answers JoePa.

“Did you ask about the kid and [authorities] never followed up? Did you ask? Did you ask?”

Silence.

We don’t see a lot of Sandusky in the movie, and that’s quite all right. We do hear from the mothers of victims — and the pursuit of justice is told mostly from the point of view of the industrious young local reporter Sara Ganim, who wrote about a grand jury investigating Sandusky six months before indictments were handed down.

When the Paterno family is in full crisis management mode — they even hired Lanny Davis, former special counsel to Bill Clinton — their beloved patriarch is maddeningly vague, still unwilling to accept responsibility.

“Everyone wants to know what I have to say. … A tragedy happened. I did exactly what I was supposed to do, as soon as I knew. End of story. Did other people know? I don’t know. Did I know about rumors? Who remembers? I don’t know what I had for breakfast. Point is, it’s time to help the university. … What does [this] have to do with me?”

One of the most powerful scenes in “Paterno” transpires after the university has fired the coach. Hundreds of students take to the streets in protest, camping out on the Paternos’ front lawn, chanting support, condemning the media. Ganim the reporter wanders through the crowd, stunned they’re not expressing outrage about the real victims in this story.

All those children.

 

★★★1⁄2

HBO Films presents a film directed by Barry Levinson and written by Debora Cahn and John C. Richards. Running time: 125 minutes. Premieres at 7 p.m. Saturday on HBO.