Opinion: What good lies in a movie about Joe Paterno?

Matt Poe

Reports over the past several days have indicated that legendary actor Al Pacino signed on to play former college football coach Joe Paterno in a film about the scandal that engulfed Penn State University in 2011.

The scandal centered on former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who had allegedly raped and molested young children over the course of several decades. Much of the sexual abuse occurred under Paterno’s watch as head coach during his tenure from 1966 to 2011.

Paterno died at 85, just two months after being fired from accusations stemming around Sandusky, who is currently rotting in prison as he deserves, which to me is a kind fate for the crimes he committed.

The movie is being produced by HBO, and I’m sure it will be well-made and well-acted, as much of HBO’s content is. But the question at hand is not whether this film will do justice to the victims of Sandusky’s horrible crimes.

The question is whether a movie about this scandal needs to be made at all.

There is a way to make a film like this, and I point to 2015’s Spotlight, which focused on the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of child molestation through the eyes of Boston Globe reporters, as the model for the Paterno one, in terms of tone and style. It was poignant, subtle and completely moving.

Then there’s movies like last year’s Patriot’s Day, which starred Mark Wahlberg as a fictional police officer who, remarkably, was at the Boston Marathon bombings and then served as the focal point for every part of its manhunt and investigation. That movie felt like pure exploitation and nationalism at its finest.

I’m not a fan of Wahlberg and Peter Berg (the film’s director) to begin with, but the two seemed to be capitalizing and profiting off a film made about a terrible tragedy in our nation’s recent history. Give Marky Mark a gun and let him run around with some dopey boston accent to save the day; That’s what that movie was to me, and I’m probably not alone in that thinking.

Which brings us back to the untitled Paterno film: what is its purpose? 

One’s initial thought is that it is to bring sympathy and recognition to the victims of Sandusky’s terrible crimes and Paterno’s gross negligence — there’s some validity to that.

But we already know that both of these men and many more at Penn State acted this way, turning a blind eye to arguably the worst crime someone can commit. 

I remember this story when it broke, and it was covered extensively, not just on the sports channels like ESPN, but at places like CBS and NBC.

It dominated the headlines for weeks and you can read extensively about the details of the case if you so desire.

I say the following with more delicacy than I usually use in both my columns and personal conversations: I don’t think you can honor the victims of Sandusky’s crimes, at least not by making a film about it. 

These young men went through things no person should have to and I feel as if this movie could just be reopening old wounds for those involved or exploiting them.

I have no definitive proof of this, and I hope I’m not out of line by saying that. But it once again poses the question of why this film needs to be made, or at the very least why it needs to be made so soon after the scandal occurred.

I mean, for god’s sake, the former president of the university just got sentenced to jail time for child endangerment in the Sandusky case, only proving that there are still moving parts to this story.

There is no way to make Joe Paterno or Jerry Sandusky sympathetic figures, at least not in my mind. We’re not allowed to print the names I would call Sandusky, as it would surely relieve me of duties as a columnist.

And by all accounts, Paterno was an old fart (there’s a different F word I wanted to use) who was too stupid and too naïve to see what was happening right in front of those big dumb glasses he used to wear.  

I have no sympathy for them, and I’d argue that neither should anybody else.

I am all for films exposing terrible crimes throughout history such as genocide, slavery or anything else comparable. In that sense, a film about child molestation should be no different.

I guess there is only one question in this instance that matters: Would you watch the film? 

Even after everything I said, I probably would. I think a lot of people would. And that is why this film is getting made. Whether that is right or wrong is up for you to decide.

I just hope we can learn something from it, although all sane people know that rape and child rape are atrocious crimes. What other lessons are there to this that aren’t already known?

Sandusky will die in prison. Paterno is dead. They were not the victims here. Maybe that’s the most important lesson of all. I just hope the filmmakers remember that.

Matt Poe is a columnist, contact him at [email protected].