Brian DePalma To Direct Joe Paterno Biopic: No Silver Linings In This Playbook

5 years ago

Happy Valley is the title of Brian De Palma’s upcoming biopic about Joe Paterno. With extensive evidence to prove Paterno's role in covering up Jerry Sandusky’s pedophilia, doesn't a film about his life profit on the suffering of those whose truth he denied? With so many lies for the sake of his football legacy, there are no silver linings to be found in Paterno’s playbook.

Credit Image: © Rich Barnes/Cal Sport Media/

Filmmakers are drawn to stories with complex characters. Paterno may have held the longest tenure as a college football coach and several NCAA records, but that isn’t in itself the stuff of Hollywood drama. If not for the horrible revelations of the final years of Paterno's life and career, would Al Pacino have been interested in the title role? Or De Palma to direct? As Deadline wrote last month, “They are keeping a somewhat low profile on the focus of the film for now.” But producer Edward R. Pressman’s statement to Deadline is less fuzzy. “Happy Valley reunites... De Palma & Pacino... I can’t think of a better duo to tell this story of a complex, intensely righteous man who was brought down by his own tragic flaw.”

A tragic flaw?

An independent investigation by Penn State, led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, found that Paterno spent over a decade trying to keep the situation quiet, lied under oath that he was unaware of the 1998 investigation of abuse by Sandusky that took place in the showers of his own locker room, and “that the university’s senior administrators... were prepared to formally report Mr. Sandusky to state authorities, but that Mr. Paterno persuaded them to do otherwise.”

To call his behavior a "tragic flaw" is to pardon crimes Paterno would have most certainly faced charges for if he were alive. To make a film about him doesn’t inform the public of anything that changes that fact. So what does it do? It glamorizes a man who stood silent while children suffered. Atrocities he could have prevented instead of encouraging others to remain silent, too.

There were nine victims that followed the one he learned about in 1998. Nine.

There is no such thing as “not taking sides” when it comes to abuse. Not standing with the abused, not condemning the perpetrators and those that abet their behavior, is taking a side. You condone abuse if you don’t criticize it.

As Dr. Judith Herman writes in her pivotal work, Trauma and Recovery:

“It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing… The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering... Without a supportive social environment, the bystander usually succumbs to the temptation to look the other way.”

For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, watching as excuses are made and support given to perpetrators can be as traumatic as the events themselves. Trust me, I know all too well.

To be silent is to make a statement. One heard loud and clear.

And so, the potential costs of making a biopic like this go beyond production budgets. Real people and real lives are hanging in the balance. Can such stories be told without exploiting the victims? Depends on the story.

Take the 2011 film Oranges and Sunshine. It’s the story of Margaret Humphreys who uncovered one the largest incidence of child abuse in British history. It wasn't packaged by a big Hollywood agency. It wasn’t purchased by a top studio on the festival circuit and given wide US release. But this little film left a huge impact.

Never heard of Margaret Humphreys? It’s time you did.

In the mid-1980s, Humphreys was a British social worker approached by a woman raised in Australia looking for her English birth family. What Humphreys discovered was far more than the woman’s ancestry. As Humphreys wrote for The Daily Mail:

“From the middle of the 19th Century until as recently as 1970, 130,000 British children  -  some aged just three  -  were rounded up... put on to ships and transported to distant parts of the British Empire. Many were told their parents had died but, in fact, few were orphans... Some were from broken homes or simply placed in care by their parents until they could get back on their feet.”

The child migration scheme history she discovered had sent children often “in the care of voluntary agencies with religious ties” to other nations in the British Commonwealth, including Australia and Canada, for over a century.

The children sent to post-war Australia, “were promised a better life, where they would be raised by loving families and enjoy lots of oranges and sunshine  -  hence the title of the film. In reality, they were often used as slave labor and endured physical and sexual abuse.”

In the film by Jim Loach, we learn the extent to which Humphreys (played by Emily Watson) risked her life to give voices to the voiceless. She worked to locate identities for those who’d never known who they were. Discovered the widespread abuse and mistreatment that so many endured. She took on governments, the Catholic church and esteemed child welfare agencies involved in these migrations. She refused to remain quiet. She refused to remain a bystander.

The first article about Humphreys work was written in 1987. Her book was released in 1994. The Australian government made the first ever official apology for these events in 2009, while Oranges and Sunshine was in production.

In 2010, the the British government finally made theirs. (Canada has refused to do so.)

On February 24, 2010, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said:

“Until the late 1960s, successive UK Governments had over a long period of time supported child migration schemes. To all those former child migrants and their families... we are truly sorry.... We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back.

We are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded.

And we are sorry that it has taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved.”

With Oranges and Sunshine, the world learned of the forgotten migrant children and the work Humphreys continues to do on their behalf. It sends a message about the importance of support, advocacy and acknowledgement in healing trauma.

There can be no such message in a film about the life of Joe Paterno. No scene that can change the fact that he facilitated Sandusky’s crimes, many taking place on his own watch, in his own halls. He was not merely silent, he was an active participant in silencing others.

Voices of children not heard. Cries for help not heeded.  

In buying popcorn and tickets to see a film about Paterno, filmgoers can choose to give this man more attention. The opportunity to be celebrated. Even in the silence of a full theater, that choice will speak volumes.

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