Baseball may be America’s pastime, but that just means football is the nation’s present-time (not a phrase? – you know what I mean). For some reason the United States as a whole has latched on to the violent brain-damage machine that is American football, and doesn’t seem to be letting go any time soon. It’s a powerful religion – one that I myself was once seduced by. It is difficult to attend a school like USC and not get swept up in all of the school spirit. I cheered every hit and boo’ed every UCLA student I saw for four years, and only after graduation did I gain a little perspective on the whole thing. For me, that perspective meant realizing how pompous I was during that period, but Amir Bar-Lev’s new documentary, Happy Valley about Pennsylvania State University and the Jerry Sandusky trial, looks at the greater consequences of blind spirit and support.
Bar-Lev sets the tone early in the film. After brief archival footage of late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno stating the special status of college football, he cuts to the announcement of the result in the Sandusky trial. Hundreds of people stand around, as if to watch one of the games for which the college is best known. When the guilty verdicts are announced, the assemblage cheers. Touchdown. This incredibly tragic and serious case has been boiled down to an accounting of winning or losing. This is football country – that’s all that matters.
The first chunk of Happy Valley deals directly with assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the charges of child sex abuse filed against him. Bar-Lev shows us the public perception of Sandusky prior to the revelations of horrible misconduct, then goes into detail on the legal aspects of the case. The viewer’s window in this segment is Matt Sandusky, Jerry’s adopted son and one of his victims. Bar-Lev charts the journey Matt takes in accusing his adopted father, but that is as interesting as this first segment gets, which can be a little disconcerting. The opening 30 or so minutes is just all information: here’s what happened then, here’s what’s happening now. Matt Sandusky’s ethical dilemma is interesting, but Happy Valley doesn’t take off until Bar-Lev leaves the hard facts behind.
Eventually the focus shifts to the surrounding town of State College (nicknamed “Happy Valley”) and the reactions of the people living there. Not the reactions to Jerry Sandusky – while he was a beloved figure, few hesitate to declare him a monster – but the reaction to the aftermath. In the wake of the scandal (which is hardly a strong enough word to describe what happened), the administration at Penn State decided to release Paterno, who had been the head coach for 45 years, but had become a sore spot for the school after the court of public opinion found him guilty of not doing enough to stop Sandusky. This firing incites a riot that night among the students, and sets off an atmosphere of enraged entitlement across the municipality. Further sanctions follow for the school and Bar-Lev shows us the outrage of the people every step of the way.
Bar-Lev immerses the audience in this community; he interviews dozens of residents, including Paterno’s wife, Sue, and two of his sons, Jay and Scott; Penn State professors and students; local artists; and even Paterno’s biographer. Their almost universal defense of Paterno’s (lack of) actions and the cover-up seemingly perpetrated by the school is disturbing, but that attitude is so pervasive that one might be forgiven for starting to sway in their direction. But Bar-Lev always brings the narrative back to the real wronged parties: the victims, as represented by Matt.
Once Happy Valley takes its turn it transitions from adequate to excellent. Bar-Lev doesn’t make concrete judgments about what was or wasn’t done correctly; he is more interested in the dangerous group-think that can spring up around sects of people joined by an almost cult-like passion for something. This phenomenon is not exclusive to college football, but the people of State College effectively demonstrate Bar-Lev’s point. Blind support is rarely advised, and unfortunately we sometimes learn that the hard way.