Nestled in the idyllic area known as Happy Valley lies the town of State College and the home of Penn State University. For over 40 years, Joe Paterno was the celebrated head coach of the school's storied football team. Lauded not only for his program's success on the field, but also for students’ achievements in the classroom, Paterno was a revered figure in a town where team loyalty approached nationalistic fervor. Then in November 2011 everything changed when longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with 40 counts of child sex abuse, setting off a firestorm of accusations about who failed to protect the children of Happy Valley. Filmed over the course of the year after Sandusky’s arrest as key players agreed to share their stories, HAPPY VALLEY deconstructs the story we think we know to uncover a much more complicated and tragic tale.
Amir Bar-Lev takes a fly-on-the-wall approach in his documentary about the Penn State football scandal. He presents a series of interviews from all involved around the college town and presents their own perspective. The results speak for themselves as a shocking expose on controlling damage for an institution that has become a religion for the people of Happy Valley. This is a town so bitterly desperate to maintain its own name and save its title from being tragically irony.
One thing is very clear from these series of events: college football has a corrupt air of tribalism, at least for the students, faculty and local residents of Penn State University. For many years, coach Joe Paterno and assistant coach Jerry Sandusky were heralded as gods of the community. So when the horrific truth was revealed that Sandusky had sex with children and Paterno did little more than quietly report it to staff, Happy Valley shutters violently. There are two camps that spawn in this revelation; those that want their legacies scrubbed and those who want their legacies to remain golden.
When Joe is fired from coaching, the students explode on the town in a destructive riot. Cars are turned over and streetlights are forced to the ground as they chant for Joe. They attack the media vans and cameras, claiming it is their fault for dragging Joe through Sandusky’s mud. The mere thought that Joe was wrong for not fighting against this disgusting secret doesn’t cross their minds. They’ve known Joe for years and he’s been the idol of the college’s football program. He couldn’t have been a bad guy in all this. Paterno’s fans attempt to explain away his actions as if reporting the Sandusky sex abuse once was good enough. What more could he do? We may never know how he truly felt or what he did to deal with this as he passed away in 2012 before the trial.
The opposing side is just as committed in the way they want to forget, but by removing Penn State’s legacy all together. It’s not enough that Paterno was fired from coaching as his statue and plaque would have to be removed, in addition to his wins. Before the statue was taken down, however, there were battle lines being drawn around it. A protester pickets near the statue which angers those who desire to have their picture taken with Paterno. They viciously talk back to him and destroy his paper sign for shaming such a figure. In their fiery hearts, they know Joe is a saint. He’d have to be. To say otherwise would tarnish all those years of his contributions to Penn State football.
The NCAA shames the college for keeping such a dirty little secret as such for all this time. Did Penn State deserve the fines and restrictions that were charged against them? Perhaps it’s the only way to bring the town’s attention to this issue which they choose to bury their heads in the sand about. Sure, Sandusky was terrible and Paterno did nothing when he learned of his sexual crimes, but they did create a heck of a football program. Perhaps the most disturbing moment is when a college game is silenced for a moment to pay respect to the sexual assault victims of Sandusky. A Penn State player quickly moves on and makes with the trash talk. In his interview, he seems more concerned with the game than anything else. It’s that mesmerizing spell of football the shuts out everything else. All the abuse, the scandals, the victims and the depravity evaporate for a few hours for everybody to roar for the home team.
Happy Valley is a disturbing and telling documentary that holds a mirror up to the corruption and tribalism of a college football scandal. It’s an institution that has ingrained itself so deep into American culture that no amount of immorality or illegality can shake its foundations. In that sense, the NCAA may have been justified in their decision to punish Penn State. The move brought tears and shame to the community, but would that feeling have been present if the Sandusky scandal was swept under the rug quietly with no damaging consequences to the school itself? The film leaves many of these questions up to the viewer after laying all the cards out on the table. It’s up to the viewer to decide if Penn State was bullied into guilt or if they were too soft on such crimes. In either case, it’s one of the most fascinating looks at how football controls American culture to an absurd degree.
You rated this film: 4
Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Classification is to be confirmed by the British Board of Film Classification
Join the Cinema Paradiso DVD rental and Blu-ray Rental service today and get a Free DVD rental trial. Sign up today!