Posted on 17 November 2014.
AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Penn State Football’s ‘Happy Valley’ Review
I have no love for Penn State. They aren’t my college’s biggest rival, so there are schools and teams I hate more, but unless Penn State is playing one of those schools, you’ll never see me root for them. If those first two sentences didn’t spell it out completely, I’m a big college sports fan. And when sports scandals arise around a team I don’t root for (I strangely become uninterested when my team becomes embroiled), I’m hooked. In 2013, when the Miami Dolphins had a locker room bullying scandal, I was all over it. I read every word of the 200-page report that was issued. And I read every character of every text message exchanged between Jonathan Martin and Ritchie Incognito. It provides an inside look at something I love, even if I’d prefer the seedy underbelly didn’t exist.
The 2011 Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal that emerged at Penn State was no different in terms of attracting my attention. I remember listening to pundits on the radio and driving around aimlessly in the car just to completely capture their take.
For the uninitiated, Jerry Sandusky, a longtime Penn State assistant football coach (and Jesus to legendary head coach Joe Paterno’s God, as one interviewee in “Happy Valley” puts it), was accused by multiple victims of sexual abuse when they were children. Sandusky was the founder of a youth sports camp and used this foundation to lure young boys.
An artists removes Sandusky by painting him out of a mural, as a jury removes him from society by sentencing him to prison.
Naturally, none of this was supposedly known by Penn State officials until 2001, when a graduate assistant and former Penn State quarterback, Mike McQueary, reportedly saw Sandusky fondling a boy in one of the Penn State showers. McQueary told Paterno what he saw. Paterno in-turn told his “boss” (in title only, as again, Paterno was “God” in State College, Pennsylvania) and no one ever did anything about it in terms of reporting the incident to law enforcement.
Paterno, who for years was deified, was, all of a sudden, vilified. He was fired after more than 60 years on the job. He died of cancer soon after and a bronze statue of his image was ripped from the campus ground. Penn State had to look itself in the mirror and consider the character of the man they revered.
The director, Amir Bar-Lev (who apparently likes sports-related documentaries, as he had currently directed “The Tillman Story”; he is to documentary-making as I am to documentary-watching), presents complete objectivity throughout “Happy Valley,” as it’s clear he has no answers for the actions that played out regarding the aftermath of the scandal. What he does is present the complex facts of what took place and allows the viewer to draw their own feelings toward the events depicted and issues raised.
I’ve already had numerous discussions about what happened at Penn State, which have essentially been dormant for two years, but the film makes me want to rekindle those talks. Not just about what I think those involve should have done, but what I would have done. I want to try concocting scenarios that would be analogous in my life and determine if I would have acted any differently.
Bar-Lev does something wise in not making “Happy Valley” a crime film. What Sandusky had done carries no filmic requirement. Instead, Bar-Lev presents how the criminal accusations facing Sandusky affected State College. It’s a document of the time surrounding Penn State and its carries a journalistic integrity, putting the viewer in opinion’s driver’s seat. It will provoke discussion, which is largely the goal for any documentarian showing “this is the world in which we live.” My feelings regarding what took place after the Sandusky charges are still very much mixed. I do know one thing though. I’m still not going to root for Penn State.