Sometimes I don’t realize what a movie or a story is MISSING until after I’ve read a good critique of it. That was the case with Paterno, Barry Levinson’s movie about the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The movie was pretty tightly focused on the last couple weeks of Joe Paterno’s coaching tenure at Penn State: his 409th career win as a Division I coach, and then, less than two weeks later, his firing.
The main criticism of the movie seemed to be that it “didn’t draw any conclusions.”
But my problem with it was that it left the big question unanswered: how did someone like Sandusky get away with what he did for over two decades before he was finally formally charged? It was a lot more nuanced than just Joe Paterno “looking the other way.”
Sandusky was the founder of a children’s charity which helped disadvantaged and troubled boys. That was where he found his victims. How was it possible that he was affiliated with that charity for over two decades without someone NOTICING that something was “off”?
The uneasy answer is that most of the people who knew him professionally– including licensed psychologists, childcare professionals, and law enforcement officials– didn’t know exactly what they were seeing when they looked at Jerry Sandusky. He was considered not just a noble person, but a hero of sorts as a protector and advocate of the very children he was abusing in private. The idea that he was doing what he did was shockingly at odds with his image.
That is part of the way that child molesters work.
A friend of mine whose parents live in Lock Haven PA told me that after Sandusky left Penn State but a few years before he was formally charged, he was a volunteer coach at a local high school up there. One afternoon, another coach caught him in a compromising position with a teen boy in the gym. Sandusky jumped up and stammered that he was showing the boy “wrestling moves.” No charges were filed, but Sandusky was let go as a volunteer.
My friend said that when the story hit the local paper, residents were outraged, but not in the way you’d think now.
“How dare someone try to besmirch the character of this fine upstanding gentleman who has done so much to help children in this community” was the tone of the outrage.
It seems to me, therefore, that as a writer, if someone REALLY wanted to tell this story, they’d take the following tack: show Sandusky as he appeared to almost everyone around him before there was any hint of this.
Show the seemingly benign, “goofy and childlike” (the words of a former player) children’s advocate as he appeared to his players, family, church members, the college community, and the people at his charity.
Make him look like the saint everyone thought he was, and then proceed from there.
The audience has to be sympathetic to Sandusky and manipulated into dismissing anything that looks the slightest bit unseemly.
Just like most of the people around him were for almost 30 years.