The brutal referendum of Paterno

The real star of this HBO movie is our habit of not-knowing about rape

Kathy Baker and Al Pacino.
(Image credit: Atsushi Nishijima/HBO)

It's hard to know that a rape happened.

The word "hard" in that sentence works two ways. There's hard as in unpleasant or hard as in heavy. But hard can also imply doubt, such that "hard to know" means "difficult to prove." That slippage is, oddly and interestingly, what Barry Levinson's film Paterno, premiering Saturday on HBO, is mostly about.

One product of the #MeToo movement has been the stripping bare of this epistemological framework — this mode of processing narratives about sexual assault that strikes us as just and fair-minded and restrained, but which, in practice, makes it structurally impossible for us to "know" to our satisfaction that a violation actually occurred. (In this post, I enumerate the various scripts we use to make sure that we can always have the luxury of not-knowing.) It's clear that this reluctance to know is at least in part protective — not of the victims, but of reputations and structures and ourselves. It, is, in a word, cowardly.

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I confess I didn't expect Paterno — in which Al Pacino plays Joe Paterno, a revered football coach at Penn State who resigned in disgrace after his sometime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was found to have been raping children over a 15-year period — to take up this complicated point as its theme.

But it does. This choppy, odd, formally inventive film isn't really about Joe Paterno. Not quite. It isn't about Jerry Sandusky (Jim Johnson) either, or his victim, or Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), the young reporter who broke the story. These people all appear in the movie, but they all (even Paterno) feel dropped in and somehow incidental. The film alights on characters in a distracted and fidgety way. A conversation between a man and his secretary leads nowhere. A frightened boy runs away from some bullies. The movie feels like it doesn't want to focus on any one person or plot for too long.

But that seems like it's sort of the point. Its real subject, its star, is really less a person than an idea: It's the way people like these have historically managed to not know things.

This is the story of how Joe Paterno managed to "not know" that Jerry Sandusky was raping children during much of the time they worked together — despite the fact that a Penn State graduate assistant named Mike McQueary saw him in the shower sexually assaulting a child and says he told Joe Paterno as much.

Levinson's film riffs on the usual hagiographic approach to movies about men like Joe Paterno by reversing. Usually this kind of movie will open with a loud declaration of potential: a shot of young Paterno dreaming big, or Paterno at his peak, making a brilliant call. Instead, Paterno opens with a shot of Joe in a hospital gown going the wrong way down a white corridor — and transitions to a shot that's almost literally inside Joe head (he's inside a CT scanner, having flashbacks). The message is clear: This man is frail, vulnerable, confused.

You might expect the flashback to do what flashbacks do: show us what the character having the flashback cares about. But that's not quite what happens here either. Yes, we see Paterno reliving a particularly good game. But the man remains more than opaque. His flashback, which begins fairly normally, quickly becomes weird and impossible. It features people Paterno doesn't seem to know having conversations he couldn't have overheard and wouldn't be likely to care about.

This is a bizarre way to structure your flashback, and your story. Unless you're toying with Paterno's pleas that he couldn't know, he's not omniscient — by showing the man who claimed to know nothing about Sandusky's exploits (which he was told about) remembering things he couldn't possibly know.

The flashbacks seem to do a couple of things. They show how much Paterno has internalized his own legend and how powerfully he identifies with fame: His point of view on the story in which he played a central role is conflated with and eventually replaced by shouting bits of third-person exposition delivered through sportscasters and news broadcasts.

Levinson posits that the virtue of "good guys" like Paterno, men who are beloved, men who have statues erected in their honor, men who believe themselves to be good, is often more manufactured than authentic. Their innocence isn't ignorance. It's a choice. And they in turn presume innocence not because it's right but because it's convenient. Levinson frog-marches Paterno through the stages of this ugly revelation. It's not clear that he sees. But while Pacino plays Paterno with a shifty, deflective hunch, Levinson makes him witness his family's growing horror at the questions he never bothered to ask.

The film shows Paterno dodging knowledge at every turn. He repeatedly refuses to read the grand jury's presentment, claiming he has real work to do planning football strategies. "Yeah, what's the hurry. Guy only fucked eight children," his son Scott Paterno (Greg Gunberg) finally says, desperate to make his father take the situation seriously. Paterno's wife Sue (Kathy Baker) reads it and throws up. But Paterno — who was directly informed of at least one of these events by McQueary — insists that in some broad sense, he wasn't. "So he told you they were having sex?" a relative asks him. "No, he didn't know what he saw," Paterno replies. "C'mon! They were touching, maybe? Who knows? All I know is what he saw upset him."

The movie pillories these euphemisms. "You know why you read Virgil in the original?" one character says. "To gain a nuanced understanding of coded language. So when one of your guys says that something fishy went down in the locker room in the shower with a 10-year-old, you get the fucking gist."

Paterno's comment on the shocking revelations: "Whatever this is, I don't understand it. It's garbage." And his statement about the scandal stuns for its refusal to concede that these events took place at all: "It's shocking if it's true. We're deeply saddened." (Remember: He was told, directly, by someone who saw it happen, that it happened. But the film keeps his statements in the conditional tense.)

Levinson is pretty ruthless about this: In his hands, Paterno's decline is no more a fall from grace than it is a fall from innocence. In fact, his profession of ignorance (he doesn't even remember what he had for breakfast!) rings so hollow that the fixer the family hired advises him to retire immediately after he says it. Levinson beautifully unpacks the denial that structures these responses, and the incentives that make it attractive. Paterno's insistence on remaining passive and uninformed is so complete he even invokes the legal system to justify it. "There's a legal process happening here," he says at one point, arguing for why no action is necessary. "I get everyone's upset," he says at another. "We're upset. But you've got to let the legal process unfold."

The trouble is that he's not upset. Paterno's real beliefs are different. "You know," he says to his son at football practice, trying to explain his disengagement. "Scott gets worked up. Your mother gets worked up. That's not my job, understand? Or your job. We don't get worked up. You get hysterical every time your team gets attacked, that's a short career."

If the movie weren't already such a brutal referendum on how deflections, euphemisms, and clichés keep us from having to know what victims went through, that final metaphor — which translates child rape to team spirit — says it all.

Editor's note: This article has been clarified to better summarize McQueary's testimony.

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