Review: Al Pacino Stars in HBO’s ‘Paterno,’ a Tragedy Without a Hero


In HBO’s “Paterno,” Al Pacino plays Joe Paterno, the famed football coach at Penn State whose career and reputation were undone by a sexual abuse scandal involving an assistant coach.

Atsushi Nishijima/HBO, via Associated Press

HBO’s “Paterno” is a film about a real-life sex-abuse scandal in which the abuser and the abused are relegated to supporting roles. A dogged reporter (Riley Keough) and one brave victim (Benjamin Cook) get a fair bit of screen time to help fill in the historical record, but they’re not at the center of the story. Jerry Sandusky, the perpetrator, is relegated to a cameo.

The writers, Debora Cahn and John C. Richards, and the director, Barry Levinson, focus instead on Joe Paterno, the beloved head coach of the Penn State football team who froze in the headlights and got run over by history. There’s a lot of clamor and fuss in “Paterno,” which has its premiere Saturday, but at heart it’s a film about the lack of action — about things that didn’t get done.

The tightly constructed film — at 1 hour 40 minutes, it’s a chamber piece by current television standards — is set during two weeks in 2011, before and after the indictment of Mr. Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach, on 52 counts of sexual abuse of minors. Paterno, whose epic career ended when he was fired a few days after the indictment was announced, lies inside an M.R.I. machine (he died of lung cancer in January 2012), and we watch both recent and more distant events as he recalls them.

Al Pacino plays Paterno, and in keeping with the film’s conception, he gives a tamped-down, contained performance. His Paterno is still intelligent and possessed of the quick, pragmatic instincts of a leader at 84, but he’s hollow: His life is built around a work ethic, and his fatal failure to follow through on reports of Sandusky’s crimes isn’t about corruption or complicity, it’s about single-mindedness. He simply won’t allow himself to be distracted from football.

A lot of people in “Paterno” have reasons to ignore what’s happening, and the film uses reactions to the Sandusky indictment to represent years of refusing to look. “Have you read it?” is a constant question, and the answer is often no. Paterno puts it off until the discord in his own family and the nagging force of his memories drive him to start reading.

The film’s picture of Paterno is, if not sympathetic, certainly nuanced. His perceptions and his responses to events are often smarter and more generous than those of the people around him, who are concerned only with protecting him and the school. (Kathy Baker is excellent as Paterno’s wife, Sue.) But his only frame of reference is football, and even there his vision is constricted — in the film’s scheme, the Penn State players are as much in the background as the children Sandusky abused. Paterno talks a good game about education and shaping young lives, but his main concern is his own professionalism. “I had a job to do,” he cries. “I was working.”

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Pacino as Paterno, and Who Is That Producer? Anthony Scaramucci

At the “Paterno” premiere on Monday, boldface names like Allison Janney and Jeffrey Wright joined a wolfish-looking Mr. Pacino for a reception at Porter House in Manhattan, where the three-course dinner featured filet mignon and a football-size slice of coconut cake.

Absent from the festivities was Mr. Scaramucci. HBO, the home of liberal darlings like Bill Maher and John Oliver, did not confirm whether or not the Mooch had been asked to attend.


“I just gave them the dough,” Mr. Scaramucci said this week.

Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

“Anthony Scaramucci has a co-executive producer credit on ‘Paterno’ based on early financing he brought to the project prior to HBO’s involvement,” a network spokesman wrote by email.

Mr. Scaramucci said Mr. Pressman had invited him to the premiere, but “unfortunately, I had a prior engagement in L.A.”

“Paterno” is not the first entry on Mr. Scaramucci’s cinematic resume.

He was the executive producer of “Big Words,” a 2013 film about a group of failed rappers in Brooklyn set on the eve of Barack Obama’s election. He co-produced “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete,” also from 2013 and also about a group of African-American friends in Brooklyn.

He met Mr. Pressman during the filming of “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” Oliver Stone’s 2010 sequel to his 1987 film. The sequel included a walk-on role for Mr. Scaramucci, who spent his pre-political life as a financier.

The two men pursued a few projects — at one point negotiating with Jackie Robinson’s widow about a biopic of the baseball star — and eventually zeroed in on Joe Posnanski’s 2012 biography, “Paterno.” (The book was used as source material for the HBO film; the journalist Sara Ganim, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of the Penn State scandal, was a consultant on the project.)

“He liked the experience of ‘Wall Street,’ and he liked the business as a sideline,” Mr. Pressman said.

The Trump administration no longer employs Mr. Scaramucci, but it retains at least one aspiring movie mogul: Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, who was an executive producer of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and other major pictures and is married to Louise Linton, a producer and occasional actress.

Mr. Scaramucci, who has also invested in a Manhattan restaurant, the Hunt & Fish Club, and the New York Mets, indicated on the phone that Hollywood was unlikely to be his sole focus. Still, he mustered up a bit of the showbiz hard sell.

“What’d you think of the movie?” he asked. “It was great.”

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In Cuomo-Nixon Showdown, Black Votes Are an Early Flashpoint

Ms. Nixon, an education advocate and actress best known for her role in “Sex and the City,” has also personally been reaching out to community leaders, knowing she must crack Mr. Cuomo’s hold on the black vote — he scored 77 percent support in the race’s first poll — to have any chance at victory.

Black leaders in clergy, politics and the media are well aware of the courtship and savoring their newfound leverage.

“We’re free agents,” said the Rev. Johnnie Green Jr., the pastor of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem, who hosted Mr. Cuomo on Sunday after he said he rejected a request the week before to introduce the governor at a sister church. “We’re like LeBron James in the hotel room waiting for the phone to ring.”

Senior administration officials say the governor’s recent activity has nothing to do with Ms. Nixon and everything to do with the state budget, due next week, where the governor is seeking to mobilize black support for some of the thorniest remaining issues, including on public housing and school funding. Mr. Cuomo has appeared at black churches during past budget seasons.

Mr. Miller, the pastor of Brown Memorial Baptist Church, said that after he hung up with Mr. Cuomo’s team, he sent text messages to another 30 black pastors across New York City to ask that they not reflexively acquiesce. “I requested that they think carefully about hosting the governor until he becomes responsive to our concerns,” Mr. Miller said, specifically citing minority and women contracting.

Mr. Cuomo has had a complex relationship with black leadership in the state dating back to his first failed run for governor, in 2002, when he challenged H. Carl McCall, then the state comptroller who was seeking to become New York’s first black governor, for the Democratic nomination.

But in recent years, black voters have provided him a bulwark of support. Mr. Cuomo’s last challenger, Zephyr Teachout, never penetrated Mr. Cuomo’s political standing in minority communities. She finished with an abysmal 14 percent of the vote in the Bronx.

“Clearly, Cynthia Nixon understands that if she can’t break through Andrew Cuomo’s African-American firewall, she has no shot at being competitive,” said Representative Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, a Cuomo ally.

Before she launched her campaign, Ms. Nixon gave a quick heads-up call to the Rev. Al Sharpton, the influential civil-rights leader and media figure. She also sat down privately with the Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr., senior pastor at the 10,000-member First Corinthian Baptist Church in Central Harlem; she showed up to services unannounced the following Sunday. Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute and a longtime community activist, said Ms. Nixon also called her days before announcing a run to solicit her opinion.

The exact minute that Ms. Nixon announced her campaign on Twitter — 2:02 p.m. last Monday — she personally texted Elinor Tatum, the publisher and editor of the Amsterdam News, the historic black newspaper, to alert her to the news. Ms. Nixon granted her first sit-down interview to the paper.

“She understands how important the African-American vote is,” said Ms. Tatum. “And she is not taking it for granted.”

Ms. Nixon, who also attended services at a predominantly African-American church, Mount Pisgah Baptist in Brooklyn, on Sunday, is expected to follow up her call to Mr. Sharpton with a meal together soon at the famed Harlem soul-food restaurant Sylvia’s, likely at the same window table where Mr. Sharpton met separately with Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders as they ran for president.

Mr. Sharpton “will weigh in after he’s met with Ms. Nixon,” according to Rachel Noerdlinger, a spokeswoman for Mr. Sharpton. Mr. Sharpton has worked closely with Mr. Cuomo on criminal justice-matters, praising him at the governor’s mansion as recently as last month.


Even before Cynthia Nixon announced her candidacy last week at the Bethesda Healing Center in Brooklyn, she consulted with several black ministers and activists.

Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Not all of Ms. Nixon’s early maneuverings have played well.

She made her first stop in Brownsville, for instance, without alerting the area’s elected officials. Alicka Ampry-Samuel, the local Brooklyn councilwoman, called it “disrespectful.”

Ms. Ampry-Samuel said she still had not heard from Ms. Nixon or her team as of Friday but has spoken with the governor’s team multiple times in recent days, mostly about the state budget.

In addition to his private outreach, Mr. Cuomo has appeared alongside mostly black and Latino residents multiple times this month at New York City Housing Authority developments to decry their “filth” and threaten to declare a state of emergency.

Earlier this month, the governor met with a small group of influential black leaders in Albany about education equity funding, related to a proposal he made in January.

One of the attendees, Rev. Alfred L. Cockfield, II, executive pastor of God’s Battalion of Prayer Church in East Flatbush, got a call from Mr. Cuomo’s team afterward asking if the governor could appear at his pulpit.

Mr. Cockfield said he knew “it was strategic” for Mr. Cuomo, and that he experienced some pushback from some Democratic elected officials, but decided to let him speak anyway.

“It’s the first time any sitting governor came to our church. Why would I turn down that opportunity?” he said.

The governor’s speech was about closing Rikers Island, fixing public housing and equitable education funding — all issues tuned to appeal to an African-American audience, and potentially at stake in the state budget.

“It tells you he thinks there’s a vulnerability there,” said Bill Hyers, a senior strategist advising Ms. Nixon.

”The governor has overwhelming support in the African-American community but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t take any African-American votes for granted,” said Charlie King, an adviser to Mr. Cuomo who has helped with black outreach, “And I know that he won’t.”

Mr. Cuomo’s operation pointed to his track record for the black community, including increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 and issuing an executive order naming the state attorney general as a special prosecutor for police-related civilian deaths.

“Why in the world would we abandon him when throughout his time in office he’s never abandoned us?” Mr. Jeffries said.

Some black leaders are looking for more.

Mr. Green, president of a group of pastors named Mobilizing Preachers and Community, said he rejected Mr. Cuomo’s first request to introduce him at a black church a week ago in part because he is unhappy with the governor’s record on minority contracting. “Why should we continue to give him access to our pulpits?” he said in an interview earlier in the week.

But as he introduced Mr. Cuomo to on Sunday, he said, “Someone said wise men disagree but fools fall out.” He praised the governor for providing money to public housing and pushed him for more: “We ask Mr. Governor that you not stop there.”

Mr. Cuomo swayed and clapped as the congregation sang, he hugged and kissed members of the choir and he quoted scripture three times in his speech.

Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, who has been critical of Mr. Cuomo on minority contracting, said the governor’s team has begun reaching out to her almost daily about Vital Brooklyn, a $1.4 billion proposal from March 2017 to address poverty and violence, since it became clear Ms. Nixon might enter the campaign.

Another wrinkle is that Mr. Cuomo’s lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, is facing a challenge from Jumaane Williams, a black New York City councilman from Central Brooklyn. Shortly after Mr. Williams announced, it was floated that Mr. Cuomo was considering swapping Ms. Hochul for Lovely Warren, the mayor of Rochester, an African-American woman.

“Governor Cuomo generally is concerned about himself so I’ve found he treats people in those positions like chess pieces,” Mr. Williams said.

Mr. Cuomo has since said Ms. Hochul would be his running mate.

Eric L. Adams, the Brooklyn borough president who has been critical of Mr. Cuomo, leapt into the middle of the primary last Tuesday when he requested on Twitter that Ms. Nixon tour a Brooklyn public housing complex with him. “This campaign season gives us the chance to raise these issues,” he said.

It took Ms. Nixon all of 25 minutes to respond on Twitter: “I accept.”

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