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D: Barry Levinson / 105m

Cast: Al Pacino, Riley Keough, Kathy Baker, Greg Grunwald, Annie Parisse, Larry Mitchell, Michael Mastro, Benjamin Cook, Kristen Bush, Peter Jacobson, Sean Cullen, Jim Johnson

In October 2011, Joe Paterno (Pacino) wins his 409th game as head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions football team. At the ripe old age of eighty-four, Paterno has been with Penn State for sixty-one years, and is a local legend; a statue dedicated to him refers to him as “a coach, an educator, and a humanitarian”. But when a former assistant coach, now retired, called Jerry Sandusky (Johnson) is indicted on charges of child sexual abuse, Paterno finds himself embroiled in the case as speculation mounts that he was aware of Sandusky’s behaviour and did nothing to stop it. A local journalist, Sara Ganim (Keough), is the first person to fully investigate and report on the story, and she establishes a rapport with one of Sandusky’s victims, a student called Aaron (Cook), who was the first to come forward about the abuse. As the ensuing week plays out, the story broadens to include senior members of the Penn State faculty and the role they played in downplaying historical accusations made against Sandusky, accusations that they were aware of. As further accusations of wrong-doing are made, Paterno and his family find themselves trying to deal with a situation that, increasingly, they can’t control…

The question at the heart of Paterno isn’t how could a paedophile like Jerry Sandusky get away with what he did for so long, and nor is it how could his peers have ignored it for so long and so deliberately. Instead, the question is: how likely is it that Joe Paterno, given his standing at Penn State, didn’t know about it? As the story unfolds, and Debora Cahn and John C. Richards’ script reveals more and more about the levels of culpability that allowed Sandusky such a free rein for so long, each revelation serves to make it appear more and more unlikely that Paterno could have been as in the dark as he claimed. And as the movie progresses, we see Paterno’s initial refusal to get involved give way to moments of tempered reluctance, unwarranted bravado, and desperate agitation. Pacino – back on form after a string of less than sterling performances – shows both the physical frailty of the man, and the emotional reticence that informs his behaviour when challenged as to his awareness of Sandusky’s crimes. Thanks to both the script and his portrayal, Paterno isn’t just the legendary football coach beloved of everyone, but a human puzzle whose pieces don’t quite fit together as neatly as they should.

Pacino’s performance is cleverly constructed and detailed, and serves as the movie’s strongest suit. You’re never quite sure if Paterno is feeling guilty for what he did, or for what he didn’t do, and it’s this ambiguity that makes the movie so watchable. (It’s almost a shame that the movie ends the way it does.) Also making something of a comeback, director Levinson ensures the immediacy of the story remains paramount, and there are parts of the movie that play out like a thriller as more and more of the truth is revealed. Shot through with carefully chosen moments where the soundtrack is  teeming with snatches of angry, accusing, or shocked vox pop, the movie is dramatic without overstepping its remit, and even the scenes of people chanting Paterno’s name outside his home are based on fact. There are good supporting turns from Keough and Baker (as Paterno’s wife, Sue), and though this never “opens out” due to what must have been a tight budget, Marcell Rév’s cinematography perfectly complements the claustrophobia of Paterno’s unofficial “house arrest” while matters were decided without him.

Rating: 8/10 – featuring Pacino’s most effective and rewarding screen performance for some time, Paterno rightly keeps its focus on its leading character while also exposing the hypocrisy and deception going on around him; an intelligent but modest drama that packs an emotional wallop when it needs to, it’s also a movie that successfully avoids being exploitative or insensitive.