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4/08/2018 7:05 am  #1

Things HBO's 'Paterno' got right, things it missed

Reality check: Things HBO's 'Paterno' got right, things it missed, and 'artistic license'

By Charles Thompson
First things first... HBO's "Paterno" is a dramatization of the real-life collapse of Joe Paterno's professional world in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

It's not a documentary. That can't be emphasized enough. 

But we at PennLive did watch an advance copy of "Paterno" with a careful eye to try to help viewers / readers understand just how close the story on the screen came to real life in those eventful two weeks. 

(Spoiler alert: Those who want to see the movie before learning details of the story should stop reading now.)

And in truth, it's a pretty faithful retelling.

As former Patriot-News editor David Newhouse noted earlier this week, it is Hollywood story-telling, so events and people are sometimes "compressed," or blended for dramatic effect.

And the deep dive into the conscience of Joe Paterno is something that appears to have been pure dramatic license.

But most of the scenes that the viewer sees have more than a toe-hold in Happy Valley reality, albeit at its unhappiest moment.

Let's start with the Paternos.

Much of the movie is set in a mock-up of the late and legendary coach's home on McKee Street in State College, with wife Sue, daughter Mary Kay, sons Scott and Jay, and Paterno confidante Guido D'Elia coping with the exploding scandal.

That dialogue, day-by-day, is captured from the only sources who have recorded it publicly: Paterno's last biographer Joe Posnanski, and Jay Paterno in his ode to his Dad, "Paterno Legacy."

It is not clear to what degree Posnanski was in the Paterno home during those discussions, but he was the first one -- either from being there or through interviews with the participants that fall -- to pull back that curtain.

So yes, then-Penn State President Graham Spanier dropped in on the Saturday of Sandusky's arrest to share the statement he had drafted. 

Yes, Sue Paterno has said she became physically ill when she read through the details of the grand jury presentment, and the family hounded Joe Paterno to read it himself.

Yes, it was crisis communications hire Dan McGinn who helped the Paternos come to the realization that Joe Paterno needed to end his coaching career voluntarily, if he wanted to try to end it on his own terms.

The in-home conversations generally track the scenes described in both books.

As to the precise flow of the conversations captured?

That's harder to know.

Posnanski declined interview requests for this story, McGinn did not respond to messages left at his home, and Jay Paterno was reluctant to comment without having seen the film  

Sara Ganim.

The CNN reporter who broke the Sandusky story for The Patriot-News and then, to her credit, stayed in front when everybody else in the media world became a competitor, advised on the script.

So again, it is a pretty faithful retelling of her experiences.

She certainly did catch and deflect flak from doubters for her original March 2011 story detailing the parameters of the then-secret Sandusky probe, which wouldn't result in charges until seven long months later.

Ganim was on the sidelines for Paterno's 409th win, unaware that the investigation would break open the next week.

She was the first reporter to coax the story of abuse from so-called Victim 1, who would later tell the world to call him by his real name -- Aaron Fisher -- in a biography called "Silent No More."

She was pestered to share her sources by an aggressive NBC booker, albeit not in the Pattee-Paterno Library at Penn State.

And while virtually the entire Patriot-News staff had a hand in covering some part of the all-hands-on-deck meltdown of the Penn State world that we knew in November 2011, it was Ganim who drove what would eventually be judged a Pulitzer Prize-worthy effort.

The Penn State administrators.

The movie, through flashbacks, captures the essence of the emails between then-Penn State President Graham Spanier and his top aides Gary Schultz and Tim Curley that led to their conviction on child endangerment charges last year.

But in the movie, HBO shows Curley communicating the plan to keep the Mike McQueary report from 2001 in-house in a direct conversation between the three (better for an audience), as opposed to an email thread (better for prosecutors).

That said, the flow of that discussion is consistent with the narrative captured in the emails:

Then-Athletic Director Curley is the one proposing to amend the original plan to report Sandusky to child welfare authorities, and Spanier signals his agreement. Schultz, the senior vice president for business and finance, is portrayed more as a tortured soul, caught in the middle, but ultimately going along.

The movie also fits the public narrative in its portrayal of Paterno's edgy relationship with Spanier, dating to the president's ill-fated attempt to have him removed as coach after the 2004 season.

Another flashback recreates a now well-documented meeting in the Paterno home with Al Pacino's Paterno daring Spanier to move against him: "You want to fire me... Try it," the coach snarls.

We know who won that fight, though as Posnanski has written in his book, Paterno's tensions with Spanier may have cost the coach political capital with trustees that could have helped him when the Sandusky story exploded years later.

Aaron Fisher.

Fisher's character represents the voice of the victims' in the film.

While it's not exactly clear that he was chased through the halls of Central Mountain High School as depicted in the film, he was definitely threatened after the football team lost its famous volunteer coach (Sandusky), to the point that he switched schools in the middle of his senior year.

The locker room fight.

Yes, Penn State linebacker Mike Mauti and safety Drew Astorino and Jay Paterno, then Joe's offensive coordinator, went after each other physically in a Beaver Stadium locker room at halftime of what would be Joe Paterno's last game as head coach.

The fight was sparked by the ineffective quarterback play of Rob Bolden, and the defensive leaders' demand that Matt McGloin be given a chance to give the team a spark.

The heat of the battle.

All sides were pulled apart before a true fight broke out. The story was first detailed in John U. Bacon's 2013 book, "Fourth and Long," and has since been corroborated by other witnesses.

A look back at the stats suggest that Penn State's defense really won that game, FYI.

The rape issue

The film shows, through cut-aways to national media reaction, how many analysts and talking heads got ahead of themselves in part because of prosecutors' characterization in the Sandusky grand jury presentment of what McQueary reported as "anal intercourse" with a child who has come to be known as Victim Two.

McQueary, in the four sets of court testimony that I've heard, has been careful to specify that while he thought he was seeing an act of sexual abuse, he did not actually see sexual penetration.

As one of the more graphic acts in the presentment and the one that was related directly to Paterno, this description -- which even McQueary objected to after the presentment came out -- landed like a ton of bricks and helped shape what Paterno loyalists have characterized as the rush to judgment that engulfed the guilty and innocent alike.

Viewers will note the movie doesn't spend much time dissecting that issue, likely because of its tight focus on Joe Paterno's personal fall. This is, however, likely to be an issue with some. 

Drawing a conclusion on a big point.

The movie does seem to reach a conclusion on a significant point in the Penn State cover-up part of the Sandusky scandal.

It happens in the portrayal of the infamous Curley email proposing to keep the McQueary situation in-house. This is the one that starts with those incendiary words: "After giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe..."

Many people leapt to the conclusion in 2012 that that phrase meant that Paterno had a hand in squashing the plan to tell child welfare officials of McQueary's report. 

That's a possible interpretation. But the man who might have enlightened us on the point, Curley, claimed in court testimony last year that he does not remember the details of that discussion.

At his June 2 sentencing, trial Judge John Boccabella made clear that he found Curley's memory lapse suspicious.

"I remember almost every mistake of consequence that I have made in my life... and I could testify to them," Boccabella told Curley at one point during the proceeding. "I have no doubt that you could also if you were so inclined."

The HBO film -- to its credit -- doesn't try to inject made-up dialogue to fill in that key blank.

But there is this one small addition. As Curley is trying to convince Schultz of his amended plan for dealing with the Sandusky situation in 2001, he tells him, "Graham agrees. Joe agrees."

The Nebraska game.

This was different. The movie shows Joe Paterno pacing around his house, seemingly in some kind of mental anguish as the Nebraska game - the first one he wasn't coaching at - played out at Beaver Stadium.

According to Jay Paterno's book, however, the coach spent most of that day in the Mount Nittany Hospital, after coughing up blood. Paterno, as we all know now, was diagnosed with lung cancer and died the following January.

He was spirited out of the home on McKee Street on game day by laying down in the back seat with a blanket over him until they got by the media encampment outside.

That dream sequence and other dramatic license.

Here's where director Barry Levinson's movie definitely veers into artistic license and dramatic conceit.

If Paterno ever did have a dream about Jerry Sandusky swimming with his kids that caused him to bolt upright in bed, it's nothing that ever been shared with us.

It is true Sue Paterno contended in a television interview in 2013 that the fact the Paternos let their kids play in a swimming pool with Sandusky in the 1970s was proof they didn't know he was a pedophile.

That story is the premise that sets up the dream sequence, in which a concerned Joe Paterno suddenly dives into the pool and appears to sink away.

That swimming pool anecdote definitely became part of the Paternos defense, and Levinson deftly worked it into the story, but it's not clear if she and Joe had had that discussion. 

Small details.

Is it perfection? No.

In the Penn State / Illinois game, there is a shot of the scoreboard showing a 7-3 Illinois lead late in the fourth quarter. Problem is, the game as it is tracking at that point is still in the first half. Ooops.

The Patriot-News office Ganim reported from actually was moved out of Harrisburg in 2010, about 18 months before the Sandusky scandal broke. We're guessing the Harrisburg skyline was more cinematically appealing than an office park off of Interstate 81.

And curiously, when Ganim's character leaves the office ostensibly to go back into the field on this story she turns right, toward the railroad bridge over Market Street, rather than left toward Cameron Street, the quickest way to Route 322 and State College.

This reporter never took a telephone call in the week after the arrest about the Penn State trustees "firing" Spanier. That's a classic example of compressing details and characters.

The big question.

Viewers looking to this movie for some kind of conclusion on Paterno's role in and responsibility for the Sandusky scandal will not find it.

Like many movies you've probably seen in your life, this one does not wrap up the story with a neatly tied bow, or an answer obvious to everyone.

But that's not a terrible faux pas, either.

As a scene at the very end of the movie shows, the record on the Sandusky scandal was not complete at the time of Paterno's death - we now know of at least six potential instances, for example, in which Paterno or other PSU athletic department officials saw or were told about some type of abuse allegations by Sandusky.

That's more than anyone knew about in 2011, or even at the time the Freeh Report was released.

But even that's not everything we might come to know in the future.

So if the movie, in the end, asks the viewer to reach his own conclusion, maybe that's about the best any of us can do.

We live in a time in which decent and otherwise sensible people are surrendering too easily to the hectoring of morons or extremists. 

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