I watched the movie, curious to see how Barry Levinson would portray the events, and how Al Pacino and a litany of really great actors would put the whole thing together.
The movie had a Shakespearean quality to it, trying to make an interesting case study of Joe Paterno and an examination of two fateful weeks. Like many movies, it took actual events, and the writers formed a narrative around it - much like Shakespeare's Julius Caesar wasn't based on the actual conversations between Marcus Brutus and Cassius.
Predictably, in their response to the movie, the Paterno family chose to attack the movie’s credibility.
"The HBO movie regarding Joe Paterno is a fictionalized portrayal of the tragic events surrounding Jerry Sandusky's crimes. Numerous scenes, events and dialogue bear no resemblance to what actually transpired," Scott Paterno thundered in a public statement just prior to the movie's release on Saturday.
For good measure, the family also pushed their own commissioned report on the scandal - a weak, broad characterization of the profile of child molesters. The report, which has been floated before, is another attempt to try to convince people to believe that Jerry Sandusky simply fooled everybody, which conveniently absolves everyone from blame - especially Joe Paterno.
Their attacks on the credibility of the movie are reprehensible and are yet another attempt by Paterno apologists to try to deny that anything was wrong with their father or the institutional structure at Penn State when their father was head coach there.
In effect, they are trying to replace the fictional portrayal of Paterno in the movie with their own fictional representation of Joe.
The movie focuses on the actions during the time when Joe Paterno was fired from Penn State, flashing back to actions that former Penn State President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and legal counsel Gary Schultz made that ended up in convictions for "endangering the welfare of children" in the cover-up of Jerry Sandusky's crimes.
In the movie, Paterno is never pictured directly in this process - nor is it portrayed how involved he is with those things - but his shadow hangs over the proceedings of the three men, whether they're in the halls of Beaver stadium below the football game, or alone, drinking, trying to figure out what to do.
It seems like Levinson and the writing team actually tried to be careful to not overinvolve Paterno with the child sex abuse scandal directly, instead using self-evaluative dream sequences to speculate what might have been going through his mind.
If anything, the portrayal was restrained.
As you might imagine, the movie covers at length how assistant coach Mike McQueary went to Joe Paterno to specifically address an incident he witnessed involving Sandusky and a young boy in the showers in Penn State’s Lasch building.
When Paterno was confronted by McQueary, the movie accurately portrayed that Joe’s instincts were to only do the absolute minimum required and have his "higher-ups" deal with it (even though the movie also accurately said that Tim Curley felt like he needed Paterno's OK to go ahead with their plan about reporting Jerry Sandusky to authorities).
That McQueary confronted Paterno is not in question by anyone but the biggest Paterno deniers. And the conclusion that Paterno did only the bare minimum legally but failed to follow through on moral obligation has been the conclusion of many people outside the Penn State bubble for a long time. Again, the movie talks about these issues in fictional conversations - but they are the right big questions to be asking.
There are other questions the movie could have posed as well, but did not – and perhaps should have.
a timeline of the involvement of the two men, and have used it to provide the facts of the matter. My timeline does not prove any culpability, but like the movie Paterno, it does lead to some big questions that don't have easy answers.
Jerry Sandusky set up his charitable organization, the Second Mile, in the shadow of Penn State. It was always intended to be "affiliated with Penn State University athletes and Penn State in general," Sandusky told the Penn State student newspaper The Daily Collegian in 1979.
Founded in 1977, fundraising for the foundation was still going on 1979. "Sandusky always wanted to start The Second Mile," according to that article. "'It's a difficult thing to get started, but we're committed to getting it,' [Sandusky said.] The 'we' Sandusky refers to is a group of townspeople, University staffers, coaches, and athletes."
The mission of The Second Mile, too, was not without critics: a social worker once chillingly wrote the Penn State newspaper, “…it seems especially inappropriate to bring a boy from Erie, Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia to central Pennsylvania where he is hundreds of miles from the support of his family and friends.”
It’s a matter of public record that Joe Paterno was on the honorary board of directors of The Second Mile. "Other staffers, like Joe Paterno, are giving Sandusky support, as are many other faculty members," the article continues.
Another inconvenient fact is that Joe Paterno was also the acting athletic director at Penn State in 1980, taking over for Ed Czekaj, during a critical time when The Second Mile was still getting set up. Though the Second Mile's facility, built in the shadow of Beaver Stadium, wasn't completed until 1982, the organization of the charity.
Additionally, in the Freeh report, an oft-overlooked note handwritten by Joe Paterno himself said that he “at times tried to help you with your [sic] developing the 2nd mile”.
That appeared to be true, even if only based on a local paper article titled, "Sandusky And Paterno Explain Second Mile".
People need to face the simple truth that without Joe Paterno, there is no Second Mile. The foundation was so steeped in Penn State athletics culture that their public face may as well have been one and the same.
But exactly how involved was Joe Paterno in this process of developing the Second Mile with Jerry Sandusky? By Paterno’s own admission there was involvement. How deep did it run?
There are plenty of other questions as well.
The movie didn’t tackle these questions as deeply as I’d have liked.
But the movie did accurately portray the end result, which was that Joe Paterno ultimately allowed Sandusky to have his own fame, and allowed Sandusky to co-opt Joe's and Penn State’s institutional reputations to commit crimes against children.
It is shameful that Paterno apologists cling to their own version of fiction - that Joe Paterno is a modern-day saint, free of culpability. They appear to be struggling to portray their own fiction - a fiction that Joe Paterno had no idea what The Second Mile was, that they had no idea who or what Jerry Sandusky was - that nobody could have divined what Jerry Sandusky was.
"Penn State football lettermen call 'Paterno' movie an 'uninformed depiction' of the late coach," a release from former Penn State football players boomed even though none of them had actually seen the movie. "Deviously using ‘fiction’ as his shield, Levinson takes shameless liberties about the Sandusky scandal and Joe’s knowledge of it that would certainly be proven libelous if Joe were alive today," it reads.
This is utter hogwash. There is no court of law that could consider this mild depiction of Joe Paterno libelous in any sense of the word. And the hyperbolic reaction to the movie - aside from driving tons of additional viewership towards it - is over the top. Nothing about Paterno or the Sandusky scandal revealed in the movie was particularly ground-breaking or controversial.
Unfortunately for them, the version of Joe Paterno in the HBO movie is almost certainly closer to the actual truth – a head coach who, when push came to shove, cared more about winning football games than protecting children. A head coach who chose not to look too closely about what he was allowing to be built around him.
What scares critics of the movie Paterno the most, I think, is that it is performing the task of self-reflection that too many around Penn State refuse to do. The truth is that there were lots of little indications everywhere that things didn't seem quite right, as my timeline and these little tidbits clearly show. Joe may or may not have known, Penn State administrators, politicians, and residents may or may not have known, but he and all of them certainly didn't make much of an effort to look too closely, and at times, ignored what was in front of them.
Ultimately, Joe Paterno's legacy will end up being complicated, no matter what people say. The sooner the Paterno family and the worst of the Penn State denialists perform that self-reflection and acknowledgement of mistakes, the sooner the world, and Penn State, will move forward from the scandal. Seven years after Paterno was fired from Penn State, it seems like that lesson still needs to be learned.