“While there are no villains, there are no
heroes either. And until you make the final discovery
that there are only human beings … you are liable
to miss something.”
— 1920s sportswriter Paul Gallico
The octogenarian in a hospital gown, limping lost and befuddled down a hospital corridor at the start of HBO’s Paterno couldn’t have known his life and reputation were about to change forever.
Unimagined chaos would shortly engulf Joe Paterno, a storm presaged in the ominous symbols that mark the opening moments to director Barry Levinson’s made-for-TV film, which debuts Saturday at 8 p.m.
The corridor the addled Paterno navigates uncertainly is a gauzy, ethereal pathway, one reminiscent of those brightly lit tunnels to the after-life that near-death victims so often describe.
Minutes later, Al Pacino as the aging Penn State coach is lying in the belly of an MRI machine, encased as much by his own doubts and anxieties as by the device. As words and images from his long life ricochet around him, the machine chirps like a canary in a coal mine, warning of tragedy ahead.
Levinson’s 105-minute film is a grim dissection of that two-week slice of time when an American hero fell. Lung cancer detected by that MRI, the Jerry Sandusky child-sex scandal and the disturbing questions it raised, his ham-fisted firing by Penn State, it all coalesced to shatter the life and legend of JoePa.
Paterno is a tragedy, not a documentary. While viewers may be convinced the coach overlooked – or at least suppressed – any knowledge of Sandusky’s crimes to save Nittany Lions football, questions about what, when and how much he knew go unresolved.
All we end up knowing is that it’s impossible to reconcile perceptions of Paterno pre-November 2011 with what happened in the last three months of his life
Paterno arrives on the same weekend as Chappaquiddick, the theatrical film that skewers Ted Kennedy’s image. Each film conveys and confirms the same lesson – that flesh-and-blood heroes cannot long endure.
The sports pages, coupled with the consistent excellence of Penn State football, made Paterno a hero to much of the nation. In modern America, with eloquent voices such as Gallico and Red Smith wielding power and influence, that’s typically where heroes were created.
But our cynicism, abetted by the omniscient eye of social media, can no longer sustain innocent myth-making. We know too much to worship too blindly.
So more than ever we look for heroes in fantasy. While they have almost vanished from sports sections in 2018, the movie screens are teeming with them — Spiderman, The Black Panther, Lara Croft, The Fantastic Four.
In one sense, Paterno is the latest iteration of that persistent question first posed by singer-songwriter Paul Simon a half-century ago: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”
The Yankee Clipper, by the way, was a boyhood hero of the Brooklyn-born Paterno. One of the coach’s proudest moments, he liked to say, was when DiMaggio publicly praised the plain-vanilla uniforms Paterno made a Penn State trademark.
DiMaggio, of course, would himself suffer the same fate — rudely shoved off a pedestal by former Inquirer reporter Richard Ben-Cramer’s savage 2001 biography, Joe DiMaggio: A Hero’s Life.
Perhaps for sports fans, this trend is a sign of intellectual maturity. We’ve witnessed far too many examples of physical talent unable to obscure or excuse human frailties to expect perfection in athletes any more.
That Paterno almost made it out alive is what lends Levinson’s film such Shakespearean power — an aging, addled monarch judged a fraud on his deathbed.
In early November 2011, the focus of Paterno, JoePa was a widely-loved 85-year-old icon about to embed himself permanently in the football record books with his 409th victory.
Then came the unimaginably fierce and sudden barrage, one that literally reached his doorstep. As Paterno, Pacino faces the media and moral onslaught with little of the nervous energy that bubbled like a hidden stream in the old coach. Instead his Paterno is a phlegmatic Lear, an old man attempting to hide from an unsavory reality in what had always been his retreat and obsession — football.
At one telling point, he sidesteps the concerns and frantic questions of son Scott, an attorney played by Greg Grunberg, by telling him he didn’t have time to think about it.
“I’ve got to get ready for Nebraska,” Paterno pleads just days after the scandal broke and days before his firing. “They’re 7-1.”
Paterno is sometimes shown, via flashback, trying to reflect on some of what he’d learned about Sandusky over the years — that he was a talented but annoying assistant, that he always seemed to be surrounded by children.
But Paterno leaves us little but ambiguity. Was he complicit in evil or just unable to see it?
In the end, the only certainty to take away from Levinson’s film is something that one of Batman’s nemeses uttered in The Dark Knight, a popular entry in this new superhero genre:
“You either die a hero,” Two-Face said, “or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”