Until recently, Penn State alumni would probably have been thrilled to hear that Al Pacino, one of the most respected actors of his generation, was in talks to play longtime football coach and Penn State icon Joe Paterno in a feature film based on Joe Posnanki's bestselling biography Paterno. But in the wake of a globally publicized child sex abuse scandal — in which Paterno failed to properly report the crimes of his former defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky — the news that Pacino was circling the title role has been met with threats from angry Penn State alums. Pacino is no stranger to playing controversial figures, having recently starred in made-for-TV movies based on the lives of Jack Kevorkian and Phil Spector. But taking on the role of Paterno less than a year after the disgraced coach's death would make for Pacino's most controversial project in decades. Could Paterno's life make a next great American film, or is this just another example of Hollywood attempting to squeeze money out of tragedy?
Paterno's life is perfect for the big screen: "Shakespeare himself would have had trouble coming up with anything this shocking," says Mike Fleming at Deadline. Paterno's life is perfect for a film because it has the narrative arc of classic tragedy: As "the winningest coach in football history," Paterno becomes a "campus deity." But after helping to conceal Sandusky's crimes, Paterno is fired, and dies in disgrace. Though the film still needs a script, a director, and a distributor, Paterno's unexpectedly tragic legacy is too perfect for Hollywood to ignore. "I doubt this one will stay on the market for long."
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This is an insult to Sandusky's victims: It's "far too soon to bring the glitz and glamor of Hollywood to a story that is still very much a gaping wound," says Gabe Zaldivar at Bleacher Report. A Paterno movie may seem like an obvious tear-jerker for Hollywood, but "it doesn't get any more emotional" than the actual tragedy, which is "already recorded in the hours of live coverage" and "countless words" that have been devoted to the Penn State scandal over the past year. Filmmakers should resist the temptation to capitalize on the controversy. "Let this sordid affair die, and allow those affected to heal" without seeing their real-life tragedy plastered on the big screen.
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And Paterno won't be easy to adapt: Posnanski began writing Paterno more than a year before the Penn State scandal broke, so the book is largely focused on Paterno's "rise and reign," says Cole Garner Hill at Books & Review. As a result, "reviews of the book have been tepid, with critics suggesting that by focusing on Paterno's whole life Posnanski gave short shrift to the Sandusky scandal." Any screenwriter attempting to adapt Paterno will have to figure out how to turn a book that "glorifies the career of Paterno" into a film that "faces the very serious task of reevaluating the career of a man who, at best, knowingly dismissed several egregious instances of child molestation by Sandusky on school grounds."
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