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Sue Paterno, in pearls and a red dress, a widow. Jerry Sandusky, first in handcuffs, then an ill-fitting sport coat, then a red jumpsuit. His face long and cracking, his dark eyes sagging like a beaten dog—more scared than shamed, more bewildered old man than cunning sexual predator. At least, that’s what it looks like on the surface of Amir Bar-Lev’sHappy Valley, a new documentary about the Penn State scandal that moves and feels like a drama. The film opens on the pastoral hills surrounding the 106,572-seat Beaver Stadium, the nucleus of State College, Pennsylvania. “It’s a tough life,” says the nasally Joe Paterno, sounding more like a grandma than a titan of American football. “We had Camelot,” his wife says later on, as if reading the line from a script.
The 90-minute film is rife with interviews from varying perspectives of both town and gown. Notably absent are Sandusky (currently serving 30-to-60 years in prison), former Penn State president Graham Spanier (still awaiting his legal fate), and former assistant coach Mike McQueary (the one who allegedly witnessed sodomy in the showers). You see Paterno’s grown son, Jay, visit his father’s grave. You hear Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt, talk about the way Jerry “rescued him” (of course, there’s more to that story). You meet teachers and students and alumni and Paterno’s biographer, Joe Posnanski, whose own knowledge and loyalties are unclear. But no pre-packaged conclusion runs through this film. Bar-Lev is careful to avoid even the slightest implication that a consensus has been reached among the varying parties, even now, three years after the damning Grand Jury report that undid a family name, a legacy, a gold-standard football program, and an institution with one of the largest alumni associations in the world.
Bar-Lev captures Happy Valley, the too-perfect place with the too-perfect name, and portrays it as a round character in his film. We drive along the region’s winding mountain roads under ominous skies, deep into the bowels of Central Pennsylvania. Mount Nittany stands in the background, both framing the idyllic college town and shielding it from outside forces, for better or worse. There would be no valley without the mountain, and no Penn State without football. (The team derives its name from the lions which once roamed nearby). Both Paterno and Sandusky are portrayed as mountains, themselves—from cardboard cut-outs (Paterno) to fawning news reports about off-field charity work with at-risk kids (Sandusky). Archival footage shows smiles and celebrations for years and years. Tens of thousands of fans flock to the stadium like churchgoers. How is everything so great here? How does Paterno run such a winning program and maintain such integrity? How do so many of his players graduate? How does he foster such loyalty? Why is everyone so damn happy?
And how does a pedophile manage to get away with it for so long?
It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s a balanced presentation. Paterno’s wife and kids may seem delusional, but the love they share for their fallen patriarch is pure. Maybe there was an administrative cover up, as the Freeh report suggests, or maybe a few select words from a few select emails were merely given too much weight. Maybe the university whitewashed history by removing a statue of Paterno from outside the stadium, or maybe thousands of students were idiots for rioting downtown on the night Paterno was dismissed as head coach. (The Grand Jury report surfaced on a Saturday, Paterno was fired on Wednesday, he started coughing up blood that Saturday, he was dead and buried three months later.) None of it looks quite right, and more than a few people look plain stupid. But a murky mix of pain and fear pervades both sides. Bar-Lev captures this picturesque town in its rawest state—enveloped in a thick level of shame (as not-so-subtly evidenced by cold, gray clouds in most of the exterior shots).
The highlights come from interviews with Penn State film professor Matt Jordan and local historian Lou Prato. While Jordan articulates the school’s then-and-now reliance on false idols, Prato is an analog for an under-represented portion of the Penn State population: die-hards and lifelongs who are no longer proud (ne, comfortable) to wear the school’s T-shirts. For all those who believe Paterno did nothing wrong, and for all those who have turned their backs on the school forever, there are perhaps eight times as many who fall reluctantly in the middle. Paterno was God and God messed up. What becomes of the flock?
I graduated from Penn State four years ago and spent many years as a kid visiting Happy Valley. I have a football signed by Joe Paterno sitting on a bookshelf in my childhood bedroom, and a photo on my fridge at the Nittany Lion shrine. (Yes, “shrine.”) I took a film class with Jordan and recognize just about every pixel of every scene in Bar-Lev’s documentary. My dad was a Penn Stater in the ‘60s, and we drank at some of the same exact bars 40 years apart, then together, on football weekends. Still, Penn State feels weird, and it doesn’t feel any less weird today than it did in 2011 when it all went to shit.
That’s why this film succeeds. Rather than closing the door on a long, complicated issue, it allows outsiders to understand that there’s not even a damn door to close. The quest for tidy, fast solutions—by the coaching staff, by school administrators, by the Board of Trustees, and by the NCAA—is what got us here. People want to go somewhere, but nobody knows quite where to go.
Amir Bar-Lev’s Happy Valley opens in New York today and on November 21 in select cities and on the following digital platforms: iTunes, Amazon Instant, Vudu, Google Play and YouTube.
Click here to read Luke Dittrich’s 2012 feature: In the Ruins of a Blue and White Empire