No scandal has ever been so devastating for an entire institution and community like Penn State's Jerry Sandusky's child sex abuse charges. Amir Bar-Lev's 2014 documentary "Happy Valley" chronicles the events in State College, Pennsylvania, the college town of Penn State—often called "Happy Valley"—in the wake of the charges against Sandusky and the death of beloved football head coach Joe Paterno, who died of cancer just a few months after he was fired for his knowledge of Sandusky's actions and negligence.
"Happy Valley" looks inside the institution mostly, framing the film largely around talking-head interviews, mostly with members of the Penn State community, and footage of the college town, which can vary from petty arguments between people in front of a Paterno statue to older clips of protests and full-scale riots over the firing of Paterno. It has the effect of making Penn State look appropriately foolish, but you also spend so much time with the people there that you become intimate with the universty's religious love of football and Paterno.
The film opens with footage of Paterno saying, "It's a tough life, and to be able to get away and go someplace where you . . . eat stupid food, drink more than you should drink, can get excited about going to a game . . . and have a hundred thousand people doing the same thing, which makes you feel like you're not as dumb as you think you are. College football is something special, and hopefully we'll never lose sight of it, or screw it up," which is touching, until you think about it and realize that while Paterno said this, he was aware of precisely the sort of scandal that would "screw it up."
In 1998, an assistant coach told Paterno that he saw Sandusky touching a boy in the shower. Paterno only told his superiors, the extent of his legal duty. When this was revealed in 2011, Paterno was fired. He was diagnosed with cancer soon after and died within a few months. In 2012, investigations found emails from 2001 that suggested, although rather vaguely, that Paterno was part of the decision of "shushing" the accusations against Sandusky.
Later on in the film, Michael Pilato, the artist of a giant Sistine Chapel-like mural on campus called 'Inspiration,' is shown removing the halo from Joe Paterno’s portrait—a halo that never should've been there. Director Bar-Lev drives in the message for 90 minutes about the dangers of idolization, of making humans into gods and angels and devoting entire lives to dozens of jocks on a field of grass. As one radio host says in the film, "This is why you don't make statues for people who are alive."
But instead of focusing on the details of Sandusky case, Bar-Lev focuses on this community of thousands of football fanatics, drunk freshman college students and 60-year-old retirees alike, all under the same illusion of the innocent happiness of football that Jerry Sandusky and those involved with the Penn State program managed to slowly destroy.
By doing so, however, he gives the organization more of a voice than he really should, in an attempt to appear "objective." And while the film does show both sides of a very divided argument and is not an apologia for Penn State, a sizable amount of the running time is spent on interviews with Paterno's wife and sons, who try very hard to defend him. On the other hand, only one of Sandusky's victims is shown—Matt Sandusky, the adopted son of Jerry. This kind of objectivity seems feigned and cowardly.
Bar-Lev refuses to take a side in an issue that really doesn't have room for moral gray areas. We're talking about 10 young boys being touched and groped by a middle-aged man, and many other adults looking the other way. Aside from Paterno's silence, the school's former president and two former school administrators, Graham Spanier, and Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, respectively, were charged for several crimes related to Sandusky's action*. But the documentary fails to mention them at all. Ultimately, "Happy Valley's" attempt to counter Penn State's hero worship still fails by focusing on the sensationalism of the program and the cult surrounding Paterno, which has the effect of making this another piece about the Sandusky scandal that ignores the real subject that should be at hand here: the victims.
*Correction: An earlier version of this review made it sound like criminal charges were brought against Joe Paterno. No charges were ever filed. City Paper regrets the error.