HBO’s Joe Paterno Film a Crime Drama with a Plot Twist Ending


joe paterno al pacino

There are not one, but two protagonists in the HBO film Paterno, which chronicles the period in 2011 when the nation learned what a child raping monster former Penn State Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky is.

Although the entire plot centers around Sandusky’s criminal and deplorable actions, his actual presence is reduced to a few cameos and only a couple lines of dialogue. Paterno is actually the story of two main characters, former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno and then Harrisburg Patriot-News/now CNN reporter Sarah Ganim.


Paterno is played brilliantly by Emmy and Oscar winner Al Pacino while Ganim is portrayed perfectly by Riley Keough. The only other character who is truly fleshed out here is the brave beyond belief victim number one Aaron, played by Benjamin Cook.

The Paterno family as a unit get a fair amount of screen time, but as you can see from the statement below, sent by attorney Scott Paterno, they’re not too keen on how the story was told by screen writers Debora Cahn and John C. Richards, and director, Barry Levinson.

The last time Pacino portrayed a football coach, in 1999’s Any Given Sunday, he was in the heart of his WHOOOO-HAAHHHH! phase as an actor, a period of extreme over-acting which naturally lent itself to much deserved lampoon. That phase of his career is long dead, and his effort here is basically the anti-thesis of that.

Pacino, now only seven years younger than Paterno was at the time depicted, portrays an extreme workaholic with blinders on by design. The film is told through the eyes of a man in an MRI machine reflecting on a life defined by the belief that it’s best to let other people handle the bigger issues; and you just stay in your lane.

His son, Jay Paterno, is portrayed with having the same single mindedness, and obsession with football, but none of his dad’s charisma, calculation or acumen. In this film, Paterno the younger is depicted as simplistic, with flaws that sometimes evoke the worst traits of both Eric and Donald Trump Jr.

The film itself conveys elements a few elements that preluded the rise of #MAGA.

Scott Paterno, with the exception of one scene (we’ll describe it in a bit), is certainly not a sympathetic character, and most people giving feedback on this film believe they totally nailed it.

Mary Kay is the only Paterno depicted with a strong moral compass, although Sue is also a sympathetic character to some extent. As for Joe himself, this movie is neither a hagiography, nor is it a condemnation. The JoeBots would have been angry regardless of how this was done.

He’s portrayed with nuance and subtlety, and the plot twist ending makes sure that overall justice is done to his legacy.

You wouldn’t think it possible to have a plot twist in a movie about real life events from seven years ago; recent enough to remain generally familiar to most people. However, Levinson, who won an Oscar for Rain Man, and whose credits include Donnie Brasco, The Perfect Storm, Wag the Dog, Good Morning Vietnam and The Natural, pulls it off masterly.

It’s a film with an unconventional format- two protagonists, no antagonist (as the entire situation and background is as antagonistic as possible, it’s only the worst scandal and cover-up in sports history) and no real hero.

Ganim is the other lead character, in a film that depicts a young journalist getting ahead in the world from doing hard work and doing it well. Ganim was the first to break a huge news story, and was then rewarded for it with a Pulitzer prize and then a much higher profile gig at CNN.

Yes, a journalist advancing in this world via meritocracy…clearly this movie is a work of total fiction.

Seriously though, Ganim, who worked as a paid consultant on the film, is perhaps the last person who comes to mind when you think about a famous journalist who got ahead on the basis of merit. Media is a very unique profession in that advancement and pecking order are very much in full public view and Ganim is one of the last individuals that we’ve seen actually earn their way up the ladder.

There are many reasons why the journalism industry is broken beyond repair.

However, the factors deciding how an individual gets ahead: what family you were born in to, your connections, how truly devoted you are to playing a character artist on television, and what you’re willing to sacrifice to do it, are as deserving of blame for the current dumpster fire as any.


During the Penn State riot scene, we see the mob chanting “FUCK THE MEDIA!” and it reminds us of Trump and his acolytes shouting “FAKE NEWS!” incessantly. Indeed the PSU truthers were certainly the Make America Great Again crowd long before a single red hat was produced. Both are groups in which a patriarch is a demigod, and he can never do any wrong; regardless of what basic facts show.

In the midst of the riot, Ganim asks a PSU student: “what do you think about what happened to Joe Paterno?”

“Kids got abused and he didn’t tell the police, you go to jail for that!”

Ganim asks “can I quote you?” and she responds: “No, because I don’t want to get fucking killed in my bed.”


Which brings us to the most powerful and meaningful scene of the film. When the Penn State rabble show up at the Paterno house, all they do is chant “Joe Paterno” and it’s literally the only words the mob can say. Scott Paterno tries talking to them, he brings up the children who were raped, and the mob responds with only the Paterno chant.

For anyone who’s ever had to deal with PSU truthers online or drunken members of Nittany Nation on an autumn Saturday, you’ll appreciation this scene. (That said, fans of every single team suck- it’s definitely not just a Penn State thing).

However, this is not a sports movie. The only football portrayed comes in the cold open and it’s just one game.

Fun fact: the University of Illinois Fighting Illini were the final opponent for both Paterno and Bear Bryant. The Illini lost both games, and their blown second half lead at Beaver Stadium, which gave Paterno win #409, opens the movie.

Haven’t Illini football fans suffered enough in the Mike Thomas and Josh Whitman eras? Of course, this is also the first time we’ve seen Illini football make any kind of appearance on the national stage since the announcement of Lovie Smith’s hiring.


While it’s not a football movie, it’s also not fully a journalism film like Spotlight or All the President’s Men either. It’s really a movie about a heinous crime and the equally heinous cover-up that followed.

It’s a drama about a family and a school administration trying to do damage control long after the situation crossed any threshold where that could have been possible.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports and TheBank.News, which is partnered with News Now. Banks, a former writer for the Washington Times, NBC and Chicago, currently contributes regularly to WGN CLTV and the Tribune corporation blogging community Chicago Now.

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  1. […] That’s because conflict moves the needle and the media pander to it. Just how bad is it? When the HBO biopic “Paterno” premiered, there was someone out there genuinely angry that report… […]

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