Review: 'Happy Valley' is a confounding look at Penn State post-scandal
Amir Bar-Lev's Sundance doc should spark post-screening debate
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Amir Bar-Lev's "Happy Valley," a documentary premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, is not a film about the sex scandal that rocked Penn State University in late 2011,
Make no mistake, you won't come away with any ambiguity regarding the allegations against Jerry Sandusky or the crimes for which he was convicted and sentenced to what amounts to a life sentence.
But this is not a documentary about interviewing witnesses, investigating timelines or attempting to get to the root of Sandusky's criminal behavior. The accepted supposition is that Sandusky did what he was accused of doing and, with one major exception, the victims probably aren't ready for extended feature-length interviews (plus, it's all on the record anyway).
As its title might indicate if you happen to have any awareness of Penn State and Penn State football, Happy Valley is about a place and about a state of mind, both of which were crushed and vilified by the Sandusky case and its repulsive and saddening revelations.
And that's going to prove an immediate barrier-to-entry for many potential viewers who really won't be incorrect if they say, "Yes, it's unfortunate that many innocent people associated with Penn State saw their university's good name spoiled by this and it's probably disappointing to some fans of a powerhouse sports program that innocent athletes are being punished for the actions of a reprehensible assistant coach and it's arguably unfair to blame an entire community for this ugly mess, but... Sexual abuse. Children. Let's concentrate on the actual victims here and maybe down the road we can get around to restoring the joy of the tailgating experience for bushy-tailed coeds."
It's not that "Happy Valley" cheapens what happened to the victims in any way, but there are definitely people within the documentary whose sense of perspective is a wee bit askew and they're given ample platform. And there will certainly be viewers who think that any focus that looks away from Sandusky's actions is invariably a focus in the wrong place.
That's why "Happy Valley" is probably going to leave many viewers, possibly most viewers, angry. The question is just at the direction of the anger. Many people will just have a generalized anger because if the Jerry Sandusky scandal doesn't piss you off, you're not paying attention. But I know some people with Penn State sympathies or affiliations who are going to feel like "Happy Valley" is too hard on the show and I'm certain that many people outside of the bubble are going to feel it's too lenient.
Probably that's what director Amir Bar-Lev wants, though he continues to be a director who sells himself short by rushing to cover big stories.
[More after the break...]
Bar-Lev's last Sundance documentary was "The Tillman Story," which at least waited six years to explain what happened to former NFL safety Pat Tillman. In "the Tillman Story," Bar-Lev wasn't doing original reporting, but he did an excellent job of synthesizing the facts at hand. That allowed the documentary to deliver a fair amount of clarity in a quintessentially blurry fog of war friendly fire incident.
I liked "Tillman," but I preferred Bar-Lev's earlier "My Kid Could Paint That," in which the answers weren't so easy to suss out and in which a genuine ambiguity existed regarding Marla Olmstead and the entirety of modern art.
"Happy Valley" has the currency of "The Tillman Story" and then-some. A finite number of dominos have fallen. Sandusky was convicted. Joe Paterno was relieved of his job and died. Penn State's president and AD were fired. The Freeh Report was released, documenting certain evidence regarding who at the university knew what and what they did with that information. The Paterno family commissioned another series of investigations into the case and the results, as you'd guess, explained why nobody actually could have known anything and therefore why nobody was responsible for anything more than they did.
But we don't know what tomorrow will reveal and neither does "Happy Valley."
In what would be a nod to "My Kid Could Paint That" except that it isn't, Bar-Lev is able to use art to illustrate the fungibility of not so much "truth" but "perception" in a case like this. Local artist Michael Pilato has a famous mural titled "Inspiration," which features portraits of various State College luminaries. Over the duration of the movie, we see Pilato paint Sandusky out of existence, paint a halo on Joe Paterno's head to mark his death, remove said halo as the tide turned against Paterno and then make one last augmentation.
"Inspiration" shifts and so too does the mood of both the community and the pressure from outside influences. So "Happy Valley" isn't about the news story so much as the impact of the news story and the flux of the news story. "Happy Valley" isn't the same film it would be five years from now or 10 years from now. Heck, a film that was completed in the early fall as Bill O'Brien was leading a resurrection of the football program and Nittany Lion pride isn't the same as the film that might have been made two weeks ago as O'Brien left his rebuilding project after only two years and headed for the less controversial pastures of the NFL. If new James Franklin wins 10 games next season, a 2015 "Happy Valley" might be one increasingly hopeful film, but he loses 10 games and the Beaver Stadium crowd turns on him and ugliness stirs in predictable quarters, a 2016 "Happy Valley" could add a new darkness on top of established sadness.
That, of course, is a big part of one of the arguments being made in "Happy Valley," that an obsession with athletics and one form of success led certain people to ignore what is alleged to have been the open secret of some [certainly not all] of Sandusky's behavior.
For many viewers, that will seem the common sense view, but perhaps because of the availability of sources, that's where Bar-Lev's focus is invariably strongest.
I don't know the legal logistics preventing any of the Sandusky victims from talking to Bar-Lev, nor for former Penn State President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley or former graduate assistant Mike McQueary. I assume Bar-Lev reached out to Sandusky's wife Dottie, but it's not surprising she didn't want to talk. The people with the closest involvement to the scandal are largely missing, either the victims or the people who knew those different things at different times and responded in ways that different sanctioning bodies have deemed insufficient.
The linchpin interview with Matt Sandusky, the family's adopted son, is sad and conflicted, but you sense that there's a part of the story that either he didn't want to discuss, couldn't discuss or wasn't pushed by Bar-Lev to discuss. I don't know. I only know that Matt Sandusky's story is heavily centered on his early interactions with Sandusky, the life Sandusky saved him from, and only hovers around the testimony he was prepared to give at trial had it been required. One could argue that Matt Sandusky's role in "Happy Valley" is to reenforce the subterfuge of Jerry Sandusky's good acts, not in any way as a justification for what Jerry Sandusky did, but as the explanation for how people outside of the immediate sphere of the scandal might not have known.
While the victims have only Matt Sandusky and a lone attorney to speak for them, Joe Paterno, even in death, is represented by a legion of defenders. Sons Jay and Scott, plus wife Sue are variably aggressive in their maintenance that Joe Paterno did all that was legally required of him in the case and that he was the victim of a witch hunt meant to clear out all symbolic ties to Jerry Sandusky without addressing the real scandal. Nobody related to Paterno is going to give the slightest acknowledgement that legal requirements and ethical/moral in loco parentis requirements might be different things and who would expect them to be? Sportswriter and Paterno biographer Joe Posnanski has been in the awkward position of semi-official Paterno apologist for two years now and it's a role he maintains. Posnanski, truly one of my favorite baseball writers and author of a 100 Greatest Players series that has been an absolutely Godsend standing in Sundance lines, gets to be the amanuensis for the revelation that an ailing Paterno confessed to him that he wished he had done more, but Posnanski's position has always been one of insisting that the totality of Paterno's life needed to be remembered and honored, not just the scandal. If you still view Paterno as a hero, you'll cheer these talking heads. And if you have doubts, you'll cringe. And in a perfect world, I guess you'll bicker with the person who was watching with you, unless you happen to have watched with a room full of people who don't especially care about football.
The fight over Paterno's legacy will probably be one that continues for decades and it provides "Happy Valley" with some of its most gripping and awkward moments. The heated fights between pilgrims and protestors at a since-removed Paterno statue will probably produce cringing no matter how you feel about a coach who graduated players, ran a clean program, won football games, but also felt that notifying university authorities about Sandusky was enough.
The Paterno statue is a flashpoint for controversy and, at one point, somebody says that this is why you don't erect statues to living people. I realize that this is the second time I've made a statue/documentary comparison in two days, but Bar-Lev is staring down the challenge of constructing a documentary around a living story. Bar-Lev is making the version of "Happy Valley" that he has the access to make at this second, but the movie he's made exposes some of the differences between news reporting and documentary filmmaking. A news report one day can be embellished with the changes to the story that come the next. A documentary has to sit there and be the thing it is, the thing that the director steered to towards being and the thing that access allowed it to be.
You can probably tell that I'm battling with my feelings about "Happy Valley." Bar-Lev is a good filmmaker and on all technical levels, "Happy Valley" has polish and momentum. I just wonder if, like Michael Pilato, Bar-Lev is going to look at this movie and constantly wish he could go in and repaint and eradicate the halos, as it were.
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