PASADENA, Calif. — Don't expect Barry Levinson's film Paterno, premiering this spring on HBO, to definitively answer the question of what Joe Paterno knew and when he knew it.
The film, which stars Al Pacino as the late Penn State football coach, will largely focus on the two-week period surrounding the indictment of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on charges of the sexual abuse of young boys, Levinson said Thursday during the Television Critics Association's winter meetings.
It's framed by flashbacks that take place as Paterno, who died lung cancer not long after being diagnosed, undergoes an MRI, Levinson said.
"I think the film has to deal with the complexity of it all, rather than say he did this or he didn't do that. … The questioning of it is part of the fabric of the piece," he said. "It truly is a tragedy."
Pacino, who's played other real-life characters on HBO — Phil Spector, Jack Kevorkian in You Don't Know Jack, and Roy Cohn in Angels in America — said, via satellite, that in approaching such roles, he tries to ignore what he may have heard or known about them. "I just go by the script."
In the course of making the movie, Pacino said, he did come to some decision about what he thought Paterno knew about Sandusky's abuse. His conclusion, though, seemed to have more to do with the role than the real-life Paterno.
"I don't know anything about Joe Paterno," Pacino said. "I know about the character I played in the movie And that character was as close to a savant as I'd ever played," someone so focused that in one scene where his wife, Sue (Kathy Baker), is reminding him that Sandusky used to swim in the pool with the Paterno children, he honestly has no memory of it, explaining that he was working at the time.
Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience) plays Sara Ganim, the reporter (and Penn State grad) who broke what eventually became the Harrisburg Patriot-News' Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Sandusky scandal.
Ganim, now with CNN, is a consultant on the film. She told reporters she had a "mild panic attack" at one point watching Keough play a scene from her life.
Other news and notes on HBO's afternoon at TCA: