Legendary actor Al Pacino will portray former Penn State college football coach Joe Paterno in an upcoming movie for HBO. Ever since the the shocking revelations in the fall of 2011 that longtime Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had been accused of child molestation - and that Paterno and other higher-ups in the university’s athletic department had failed to stop him years earlier- much soul-searching and hang-wringing has ensued, about everything from the primacy of sports culture, the power of championship sports coaches and what compromises are necessary when it comes to athletic glory.
Through Paterno’s 2012 death, the trials of Sandusky and the other administrators and various enacting and relaxing of sanctions against the school's football program, another long-running subplot has surrounded the possibility of a movie about the saga. A film about the scandal, to star Al Pacino as Joe Paterno was talked about as early as 2012, and a version of it with John Carroll Lynch as Sandusky and with Brian De Palma directing, was announced in early 2013, to be titled Happy Valley and based on Joe Posnanski’s 2012 biography of the late coach. That project languished and was cancelled in 2014. But now, a version of it is back on.
Pacino will star in a movie about Paterno for HBO, now to be directed by Barry Levinson, Deadline reported Monday. The film is now untitled and there’s no indication in the Deadline story that it’s based on Posnanski’s book; there’s also no word about casting beyond the lead role. Both the director and star have much history with HBO. Levinson co-created Oz for the premium network, and also directed the Jack Kevorkian docudrama You Don’t Know Jack (which starred Pacino) and the recent Wizard of Lies, about Bernie Madoff, which starred Pacino’s multi-time costar Robert De Niro. Pacino, in addition to the Kevorkian film, played Phil Spector in the film of that name, as well as Roy Cohn in HBO’s adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
It will be interesting to see if a movie based on the scandal can work. Pacino seems like a natural for the part. It’s certainly a subject of a great deal of interest for both those who defend Paterno to this day, and those disgusted by him, and it’s a classic rise-and-fall story with great potential for drama, especially in the scenes with Paterno and his family that have never been seen on camera before. A few documentaries, the best of which was Amir Bar-Lev’s 2014 Happy Valley, have delved into the story before. And a film about the new century’s other big sex abuse cover-up scandal, Spotlight, won Best Picture.
On the other hand, the story has some pretty gross and unsavory aspects. And HBO’s been on something of a cold streak of late with TV movies, most recently shown with Levinson’s indifferently received Madoff movie. Hopefully this can be a comeback project for the director, but only time will tell.
We'll keep you updated on Happy Valley as more information becomes available.