Paterno review: Pacino shines in serviceable biopic

(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between Joe Paterno (L) and Al Pacino. Actor Al Pacino will reportedly play football couch Joe Paterno in a film biopic produced by Rick Nicita. ***LEFT IMAGE*** STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 06: Head coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions during play against the Oregon State Beavers at Beaver Stadium on September 6, 2008 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) ***RIGHT IMAGE*** NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Actor Al Pacino attends the HBO Film's 'You Don't Know Jack' premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre on April 14, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between Joe Paterno (L) and Al Pacino. Actor Al Pacino will reportedly play football couch Joe Paterno in a film biopic produced by Rick Nicita. ***LEFT IMAGE*** STATE COLLEGE, PA - SEPTEMBER 06: Head coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions during play against the Oregon State Beavers at Beaver Stadium on September 6, 2008 in State College, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images) ***RIGHT IMAGE*** NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Actor Al Pacino attends the HBO Film's 'You Don't Know Jack' premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre on April 14, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images) /
facebooktwitterreddit

Paterno fearlessly tackles its fascinating titular subject, but the execution does leave a lot to be desired.

Al Pacino has had one of the most accomplished careers of any actor to date, which makes his recent run of mediocrity disappointing to see. While he always brings his commanding presence and signature energy to ever role, Pacino’s talents have been wasted by movies that range from bad to truly terrible (looking at you Jack and Jill).

Pacino is back in the spotlight with Paterno, the latest TV movie from HBO. The film is focused on Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, whose historic legacy comes crashing down due to the a shocking sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

More from HBO

Like most HBO movies, Paterno underwhelms with its merely competent execution. However, thanks to a talented cast and an honest approach to a fascinating story, there is enough in Paterno that makes it a worthy biopic.

Bringing this story to life is a talented ensemble cast. Pacino is easily the standout, as he not only resembles the head coach to a tee, but also delivers a strong performance. He perfectly captures Paterno stubborn love for football, which ultimately becomes his undoing as he sweeps major scandals under the rug. The performance in particular gets better as the material gets darker, with Pacino mining the shame and guilt that Paterno faced near the end of his life. Riley Keough makes the most out of a severely under-written role, delivering endless naturalism as journalist Sara Ganim. Annie Parisse, Kathy Baker, Peter Jacobson, and Greg Grunberg all deliver solid performances as well as Paterno’s family.

Where Paterno shines the most is in its focus of its titular character. The dynamic between Joe and his family unfolds with so many interesting complexities, as they individually decide how strongly they should support their father/husband under the circumstances. Scribe John Richards does a good job of exploring these dynamics while not straying too far away from the facts. Richards fact-based approach is able to convey the emotional weight of the characters effectively while staying true to the story.

From a craft perspective, this film is merely serviceable. Barry Levinson is an iconic director for good reason, but its clear that he’s past his prime. Stylistically the movie is very muted and dull, aside from some bewildering editing choices that are more frantic than exciting. I also think Levinson and Richards struggle at encompassing a more ambitious view of the story. Intertwining arcs involving a journalist reporting the cast and one of Sandusky’s victims are admirable in approach, but are too thinly-constructed to have any impact.

Paterno may not have quite the impact that it should, but it does an admirable job of telling its complicated narrative. I would not be shocked if this story was given the mini-series treatment at some point, as there is clearly a lot of material to explore.

Paterno is now available on HBO.