Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 11/19/14 (limited); 11/28/14 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 27, 2014
The story of the Penn State scandal is one of collective ignorance. The question, from both a moral and legal perspective, is whether that ignorance was willful or unintentional. Happy Valley doesn't have an answer and seems a little hesitant to ask the question in the first place.
We know that Jerry Sandusky, who was an assistant coach for the university's football team for 30 years, was found guilty on 45 counts of sexual abuse involving at least eight minors. That is enough for just about everyone we meet over the course of this documentary. They don't want to know any more. It has nothing to do with the nature of the crimes. They just want Sandusky to represent the be-all and end-all of this dark chapter for their community.
He does not, though, and that's what the people of the community either cannot or will not understand. There's evidence that people within the school knew about Sandusky's crimes, although how much they knew or witnessed is up for debate. They knew and/or witnessed that Sandusky was doing something "of a sexual nature" with at least one young boy, and whatever it was, it was enough for them to express concern and question what they should do about it.
Pretty much everyone, including the people who want Sandusky and his conviction to be the end of this despicable history, agrees that the people who knew about that "something" were morally deficient in their inaction on the matter. This is also enough for the community. These people were morally but perhaps not legally wrong, and the latter is the only thing that matters. The rest is just unfounded, rumors, gossip, and speculation.
How does one make a leap from that skepticism to outright denial to seeing oneself as the real victim of this story? That's another question that the Penn State story raises, and that's definitely one that director Amir Bar-Lev couldn't possibly answer. It happens here, and it's not just two people or dozens of them. It's an entire community that dismisses even the question that people other than Sandusky are morally—and might be legally—culpable in the man's crimes. If someone raises the question, it's a direct attack not only on the people in question but also the entire school and everyone associated with it.
This degree of misplaced ego should be comical. Because it's an attempt to shift the status of sympathy from the victims of sexual abuse to something as relatively inconsequential as a football team and its fans, the mindset is horrifying.
For all the film's shortcomings, it's invaluable as a document of this mentality. Bar-Lev lets his subjects off easy, but that's partly because they do so much damage to themselves.
We hear a "local historian" decry the official expunging of wins made by Joe Paterno, a beloved coach whose name came up often in the matter of a possible cover-up of Sandusky's crimes. Those wins happened, the man argues, and attempting to erase history is wrong. He doesn't or refuses to see the other side of the argument, which is that keeping that record could be seen as an attempt to erase the history of the crimes Sandusky committed while Paterno was coach (For obvious reasons, Bar-Lev does not interview the victims, save for Sandusky's adopted son, who revealed his own abuse during but separate from the trial).
There's a kid in a dorm room who becomes disillusioned with the school and its football program when they publicly acknowledge the victims of sexual abuse before football games. It's not the time or place, he says. He wants to be able yell to the opposing team's quarterback that the player will be leaving in a hearse, and he wants to be able to do so without having people pointing out that such taunting isn't appropriate under the circumstances. The kid has framed portraits of Paterno on his dorm room wall, and one starts to suspect that this is the kind of person who would buy the pictures after the coach was fired—an opportunist for outrage.
Paterno figures prominently in the film. His name is repeated with hushed reverence for his accomplishments and in angry shouts against his termination from the university. Lest anyone think the obsessed kid in his dorm room is the exception, there's a riot of students on campus the night Paterno is fired (He died of cancer two months later), and it features students knocking down a lamp post and flipping over a news van. When these people suggest that the news media is out to get them, do they even look at their behavior or listen to what they say?
People gather around a mural of Penn State legends to dissect the meaning of the artist removing a halo from Paterno's head. A man stands by a statue of Paterno with a sign suggesting that the former coach enabled Sandusky with his silence, and we see him assaulted on three separate occasions (before campus police arrive to push the protestor off to the side so that people can have their photos taken with the statue).
Was Paterno the target of a media witch hunt? It's possible, but we'll likely never know for certain. His biographer is interviewed here, and he says that Paterno related his regret of not doing enough to the writer. Happy Valley ends with a coda that informs us that three school administrators were charged with covering up the abuse. Had he lived, would Paterno have been a fourth? Here are people who seem to want the simple asking of that question to be off the table for discussion.
Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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