In his documentaries “My Kid Could Paint That” and “The Tillman Story,” Amir Bar-Lev zeroed in on the difference between the public perception of a scandal and the private truth of the matter — a theme that serves him no less effectively in “Happy Valley,” a gripping inquiry into the revelations of sexual abuse that shocked the U.S. and devastated Penn State’s storied football program. Rather than focusing primarily on Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, the film broadens in scope and complexity to examine the assumptions of an entire community, as well as the football-first culture that allowed evil to flourish in its midst. Distinguished by its measured, analytical approach and revelatory testimony from Sandusky’s adopted and abused son, Matt, this nuanced but quietly excoriating work merits widespread exposure, and could be especially well timed to coincide with the still-ongoing court proceedings against three former university administrators.
The acts of molestation and rape committed against young boys over a 15-year period by Jerry Sandusky, a 30-year member of the football coaching staff at Pennsylvania State U., are quickly recounted here: Police photographs and victims’ statements flash before the camera, along with skin-crawling archival clips of Sandusky promoting the Second Mile, his nonprofit charity devoted to serving underprivileged kids. But as its ironic title would suggest, “Happy Valley” (as the State College area is often known) takes a broader view of the matter, as Bar-Lev proves less interested in profiling a monster than in penetrating the cone of silence that shielded him for so long. To that end, he singles out the troubled legacy of the late Joe Paterno, the beloved head coach and Penn State figurehead who was removed from the university for his failure to report Sandusky’s actions to police.
Early video of onlookers gathered at the courthouse on June 22, 2012, cheering loudly when Sandusky is found guilty on 45 counts of child abuse, is later startlingly contrasted with shots of Penn State students rioting on Nov. 9, 2011, outraged by the news of Paterno’s removal. It’s a juxtaposition that gets at all the questions of denial, complicity and moral responsibility at the heart of the case: How much did Paterno and his colleagues know, for how long, and what did they do (or not do) about it? Yet the footage of students protesting — chanting “We want JoePa!” and “Fuck the media!” and at one point overturning a truck — also speaks to a larger point about what happens when college football becomes not just a diversion or a pastime, but a way of life.
If there’s an analogy to be drawn to the Catholic Church’s abuse scandals, it’s that the Sandusky affair was also effectively enabled by a religion — one that, in the forms of Paterno and Sandusky, came complete with its own untouchable deities. Shots of fans cheering wildly at football games take on a chilling lyricism that may briefly remind you of the acts of worship filmed in “Jesus Camp” (at the film’s post-screening Q&A, Bar-Lev invoked Leni Riefenstahl). Here and in his interviews, the director means to locate the point where love of the game is allowed to take priority over all else, whether it’s a few officials shielding a pedophile or a town going into damage-control mode.
The strength of the film’s approach is the way it builds a potent moral argument while still remaining even-handed toward all involved. A die-hard Penn State fan may come off as more clueless than he realizes when he criticizes the candlelight vigil that was held in lieu of the traditional pre-game “rally in the Valley,” yet you can just about sympathize with his anger that, in the wake of the controversy, the community lost something precious and vital. Paterno’s sons Scott and Jay offer honest, heartfelt assessments of their father’s tarnished career; their widowed mother, Sue, clearly crushed, is treated no less sympathetically. Yet there’s no mistaking the family’s sense of misplaced victimhood when they hire an independent investigator to effectively diminish Paterno’s culpability in the matter.
Even as its argument takes shape, “Happy Valley” continues to deepen in complexity. The filmmakers would appear to support the NCAA’s assessment of an unhealthy “culture of reverence” for Penn State’s football program, yet they also give voice to the argument that the crippling sanctions imposed on the school in 2012 were a sort of shaming spectacle, part of the public ritual of repentance that always sets in whenever scandal rears its head. Some of the documentary’s most fascinating material — a few priceless altercations filmed near the bronze statue of Paterno on campus (it was ultimately torn down), artist Michael Pilato having to repeatedly alter the images in his famous Penn State mural as the allegations mounted — examines the very human impulse to enshrine our highest achievers through art. The speed with which the town turned on Paterno, attempting to blot out even the positive aspects of his legacy, raises the question of whether history, always a mix of pride and shame, should ever be erased.
In keeping with traditional media practice, the sexual-abuse victims remain unnamed here, with the singular exception of Matt Sandusky, whose soul-baring interview with Bar-Lev forms the core of the picture. Slowly but with great purpose, he recalls how the Sandusky family rescued him from a childhood of poverty and neglect, only to plunge him into a completely different nightmare — one he felt duty-bound to keep secret until conscience forced him to bring it to light. For a film that is very much about the need to continually question our heroes and hold them to a higher standard, “Happy Valley” offers an unapologetic tribute to one man’s painful honesty and a tacit rebuke to those who couldn’t muster anywhere near the same courage.
Bar-Lev’s technically polished production premiered at Sundance just a month after director Eric Proulx’s docu “365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley” began screening in and around State College. A biopic starring Al Pacino as Paterno is also in the works.