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HBO's 'Paterno': Story works as a movie, but is it the truth?

The Barry Levinson film, starring Al Pacino as the legendary football coach, is the latest project to try to impose artistic order on the chaos of newsworthy events.

Al Pacino as Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, in HBO's "Paterno," which premieres April 7
Al Pacino as Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, in HBO's "Paterno," which premieres April 7Read moreAtsushi Nishijima/HBO

A California appeals court on Monday tossed out a defamation suit by Olivia de Havilland over her portrayal in FX's Ryan Murphy series Feud: Bette and Joanwriting that the 101-year-old screen legend "does not own history."

The court, noted the Hollywood Reporter, "found the First Amendment offers strong protections for creators — and it doesn't matter whether the works are fiction, non-fiction or some hybrid of the two."

Those are things to keep in mind Saturday as HBO presents the Barry Levinson film Paterno. Starring Al Pacino as the late Pennsylvania State University football coach during two pivotal weeks in 2011, it's just the latest project to try to impose some kind of artistic order on the chaos of newsworthy events of the past.

One difference between this and Feud, or another Murphy series,  FX's American Crime Story, whose two seasons so far have tackled the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial and the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace — or  FX's new Danny Boyle series Trust and its look at the 1973 kidnapping of John Paul Getty III — is that the events depicted in Paterno are likely to be fresher in most people's minds.

And though no one owns the history of the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal and the events that led to Paterno's firing, plenty of people have staked out positions in the debate about whether the legendary head coach of the Nittany Lions was culpable in Sandusky's not having been stopped sooner.

The divide, examined in Amir Bar-Lev's 2014 documentary Happy Valley, isn't one  Levinson and Pacino expect Paterno to bridge. I doubt it's possible to fully satisfy either side, much less both, but I found the film's portrait of a man whose extraordinary focus could play like tunnel vision, and whose background may have left him dangerously naive, to be plausible.

At the same time, in telling the parallel story of Sara Ganim (Riley Keough), whose reporting on the scandal for Harrisburg's Patriot-News won her a Pulitzer, Paterno doesn't downplay the consequences of Penn State's inaction on Sandusky's victims.

To say it works as a movie isn't the same as saying Paterno is the truth. I don't know the truth, any more than I know whether Getty III  (Harris Dickinson) initially arranged his own kidnapping to extort money from his billionaire grandfather (Donald Sutherland), as he seems to have in Trust (10 p.m. Sundays, FX), or whether he was a victim from the start, as portrayed by Charlie Plummer in Ridley Scott's All the Money in the World.

Did James Fletcher Chace, the ex-CIA agent turned Getty family fixer who's introduced in this Sunday's episode as a larger-than-life character, really wear a cowboy hat, as Brendan Fraser does, or was he closer to the more subdued version Mark Wahlberg played in Scott's film?

Both work separately as stories (and Fraser's too much fun to miss), but the two projects, released only months apart, are different enough to make anyone question what's real and what's just someone's idea of great drama.

Not even the late billionaire John Paul Getty, who once owned so much, ultimately owned his history.

For Pacino, who worked with Levinson in HBO's You Don't Know Jack — in which the actor played assisted-suicide proponent Jack Kevorkian — and the Levinson-produced Phil Spector, as well as on the film The Humbling, it was important not to make up his mind about Paterno before he started.

"I really go by the script," he told reporters in January during an HBO session at the Television Critics Association's winter meetings. "I don't have an opinion about it before I go in. I like to keep that canvas blank if I can."

When I asked whether there were anything that connected the real-life characters he's played, who include police whistleblower Frank Serpico in Serpico and Roy Cohn in Angels in America  as well as Kevorkian, Spector, and now Paterno, he replied, "It's that I'm playing them, I guess."

Biographical characters are "attractive for actors to do characters that have existed, because they're the steppingstone," Pacino said. "There's a certain credibility, because these things really happen … and, of course, more than anything, you have the real person to digest, to sort of channel."

Speaking with a few reporters after the session, Levinson said he chose to focus on the the brief period that included the game in which Paterno became the winningest coach in Division I football, his firing by telephone, and being diagnosed with the lung cancer that killed him, because it represented "the highest and the lowest" times of his life.

"He won the 409[th] game, he was celebrated as the greatest winning coach in the history of the game, and in less than two weeks, he's diagnosed with cancer and it's going to kill him. And a scandal … totally took over his life, his family," said the director, who took on the project, first announced in 2012 as a  movie starring Pacino, some time after director Brian De Palma left it.

The director said he hadn't met with Paterno's family but "some people in production did." In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, Levinson said one of many sources used in researching the film was the book Paterno by Joe Posnanski, "who was actually there and met with him."

In the film Paterno, the place from which much of the action springs is the MRI machine in which the coach is undergoing a scan and flashing back on his life.

"The form of the film, in a sense, takes place basically in the 35 minutes he was inside of an MRI machine, thinking back to all of these incidents that applied to him …. This is how you construct something in your head: It's like an MRI machine that sort of takes layer by layer by layer by layer. That's in a sense what the movie's doing, going layer by layer" through Paterno's memories, Levinson said.

That's where the art comes in, because if there's anything harder to share than an individual's memories, it has to be the confined space of an MRI machine.

Ganim, now a CNN correspondent based in Washington,  was a consultant on the film.

"It's very much still a debated topic [in the Penn State community], Paterno's legacy," Ganim told reporters. "I think, though, that what everybody who worked on the film tried to really do is show that it is a very much gray area for a lot of people; that it's not something that is completely known, one way or another, exactly what he knew."

As for how the Penn State grad felt about being portrayed herself, "it was a tad uncomfortable at times," she said.

"They invited me up to one day of filming when they filmed the scene where Paterno gets fired. And, you know, I had a mild panic attack when I arrived because it was a scene from my life that I had already lived, and then I was reliving it over and over and over again as they did many, many takes, and it was a little bit too much to watch," Ganim said.

Whatever Paterno is, it doesn't pretend to be the story of its subject's entire life.

"What intrigues me with characters is you can get in far enough where you become involved with them," seeing them, for instance, as more than "the bad guy," Levinson said.

"Life isn't that simple. He obviously did extraordinary things, and he obviously was negligent in another area. And try to sort that out as best as you can. And that fall from grace is, I think, rather powerful."

Paterno. 8 p.m. April 7, HBO.