Summary: The most successful college football coach and his legacy are threatened by institutional failure when he and his colleagues choose to cover up a child predator.
Yeah, I went there. Higher education is a topic of interest to me, specifically Division I athletics and how they’re not pro-sports but are so so so so SO prioritized beyond anything else on those campuses. (I have a whole thing about the institutionalized systemic biases and how higher education strictly caters to them- but that’s a conversation for another day.) I remember the Penn State scandal pretty clearly- in a nutshell, assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was using his position as a coach and an administrator to lure young boys into the campus facilities in order to sexually abuse them. Multiple people knew. Multiple people stayed quiet. After the news broke, multiple top-tier administrators either stepped down or got fired, as a result of ignoring what was going on, not wanting to ruin their system and reputations.
Joe Paterno was one of them. I’m not calling this guy out on being the sole reason why Sandusky should have been fired in the many instances he was witnessed- there are too many people who were aware of what was going on- but given his position, as well as the president of the school, other athletics personnel, etc.- we can see where priorities were and that’s a big part of the problem and a huge part of the reason why this event has changed the way people look at college sports, at the definition of rape, at the attitude of survivors, and the reasons why people- both survivors and witnesses- don’t come forward.
College athletics are not just things to be proud about in college community and aspects of campus life. They’re part of a power structure. In this regard, the movie could have been better. The acting is terrific, as one can expect with Al Pacino and Riley Keough does a decent job as the film’s lead journalist. However, the presentation of the problems at the climax and in the fall out of this event doesn’t really go all the way with how problematic the administration’s actions were. It’s almost as if it avoids all of that.
There are a lot of moments where Paterno could have, should have, slowed down to be more informative. The first scene launches you into Paterno’s historic 409th victory, but it doesn’t really let you absorb the campus atmosphere or how highly held this administration was. I think someone who doesn’t watch college sports or sports in general (fair weather fans) can watch this movie and generally understand what went wrong where. I don’t think someone who is so close to this type of position or holds sports close to their heart could watch this without getting defensive. I get it- when something challenges something we hold close to our hearts, that’s the natural attitude to take.
I mean, people initially rioted over Paterno getting fired. They chanted and flipped over cars and media vans at the removal of a college football coach who remained quiet and more or less protected a colleague who was charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse. Reread that sentence and tell me there’s nothing to blink at. When it’s something of this scale and of this nature, when people close to the situation instinctively feel both uneasy and in denial of what happened- we should be taking the time to help people realize the complexities in the situation.
And time is the thing we don’t get- the movie is only an hour and forty minutes, when it probably should have been a four or six-part miniseries. There is an awful lot of information to process here and we aren’t given enough time to even get around to it all. It’s sad that this was downgraded to simple event points, rather than getting to the emotional context. It’s also overwhelmed by this really epic score- think of music that would be played over that last hockey game in Miracle but instead, it’s over dialogue and decision-making. I get the parallel, but it just doesn’t work here.
I’m not sure if they assumed viewers would be familiar with the basics of the story- but there’s no presentation of how powerful Sandusky was on campus and within college athletics. There’s no description of how or why it would have been difficult for a graduate assistant trying to make his way in this field to come forward and point at the right-hand man of the most prolific face in college football. There’s no detail in how or why taking down this guy meant taking down an empire and a symbol of tradition. There’s no exploration here of why students hold their school’s athletics in such high regards. I have a feeling this has to do with some sort of rights or fear of stepping on toes and trying to treat the story delicately without ruffling too many or any more feathers, but the lack of power dynamics and how common people suffer within them was sorely missing a place here.
I get that this was about Paterno the Person- but the team and the administration so much a part of his legacy and very much a part of his choices in this matter. There was a whole machine that moved behind him and helped enable his decisions and lack of action. The movie should have been about how the system enabled the situations and fell apart, not just their figurehead. At one point of the movie, a psychiatrist says, “I’m having a hard time why people are talking about Joe Paterno at all.” I wish this movie had enough guts to take its own advice.