Movie Review: Happy Valley Shows the Horrific Aftermath of the Sandusky Scandal

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Photo: Sundance

An acquaintance told me that he was at a premiere last week of Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary Happy Valley in State College, Pennsylvania, the setting for the story of serial sex abuser Jerry Sandusky, godlike coach and patriarch Joe Paterno, and the institution that allegedly looked the other way, and that the screening was “intense.” After seeing the film, I think it’s a wonder that the crowd didn’t rush the filmmakers. The really incendiary part is not the first half, which recounts the accusations against assistant coach Sandusky, the firing of Paterno (and the college’s president), the huge rallies in support of the most revered figure in college football, Paterno’s swift death from cancer, and the ultimate conviction of Sandusky on 45 counts. It’s what comes after. It’s the militant mass cries to protect Paterno’s and the college’s name and “move on.” It’s the rage of a mob against the media, national college-football officials, and even — in some quarters — Sandusky’s victims for taking away what amounts to a religious ritual.

Happy Valley opens with a straightforward account of the facts, many underscored by the thoughtful reflections of the town’s residents and Paterno’s two sons. If you’re unacquainted with the culture of State College (located in Happy Valley), you probably don’t follow college football. The impression one gets from the film is that this is not so much a campus with a football stadium as a football stadium with an adjacent campus. With one amazing, colossal exception, Paterno appears to have done everything right for nearly half a century, insisting that his players were not only pure in heart but also solid in mind. Academics would not be shortchanged. The tens of thousands of people at tailgating parties outside the stadium — many of them drunk by the time of the first kickoff — could be assured by the presence of “JoePa” that no college team in the United States had comparable ethics. The Jesus to Paterno’s God (the simile isn’t mine but someone in the film’s) was his assistant, Sandusky, who devoted his life off the field to running a camp for wayward and impoverished boys and was lionized in the media for it.

Paterno was informed of Sandusky’s penchant for raping young boys by a locker-room witness in the late '90s and duly informed college authorities. According to a report by former FBI head Louis Freeh, administrators were on the verge of going public when ... they didn’t, perhaps (perhaps) following a conversation with Paterno about the potential fallout. Much of the abuse happened in the years between this conversation and 2011, when the charges became public and Sandusky was finally hauled away in handcuffs. That makes 14 years in which a molester was allowed to operate unmolested.

College-football officials were quick to levy an astonishing penalty, forbid Penn State’s team from competing on a national level for four years, and strip Paterno of all his medals since 1998, the year he was informed of Sandusky’s actions. The film shows students watching the announcement on television and crying out, weeping, etc. But in the months that followed the explosion, there had been riots and rallies in support of Paterno. Sandusky was dubbed the proverbial “bad apple,” a cunning predator who could evade the most exacting scrutiny. A second report commissioned by Paterno’s widow and sons gave the coach and the community — in the words of Mrs. Sandusky — “absolution that we never knew anything.” Don’t blame us is the mantra. Let’s get back to football.   

Happy Valley is not quite the thesis film I’ve made it out to be. Director Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint ThatThe Tillman Story) is judicious in giving us as many shades of gray as humanly possible. He doesn’t make you sympathetic to Sandusky, of course: The man — ever unrepentant — is beyond sympathy. But the central question is whether the culture of Penn State allowed a predator to operate in plain sight, and what truly constitutes a punishment. He allows both sides their say.

On the “let’s move on” end are the Paterno family, a particularly avid student whose room is covered with pennants and posters, a Paterno biographer, and about a hundred thousand fans — one of whom is shown threatening an old man standing next to a statue of Paterno holding up a sign pointing out the coach’s criminal inaction. On the other side are the victims’ lawyer, Andrew Shubin, and Matt Sandusky, the coach’s adopted son who came forward to affirm the charges (the rest of the family never spoke to him again), both of whom are appalled by the lack of self-examination in the tragedy’s wake. An extraordinarily nuanced film professor, Matt Jordan, manages to straddle both sides. He attacks the sanctimoniousness of football officials and argues that the punishment does nothing to address the larger problem. (I’d counter that a $60 million fine, the removal of championship trophies, and expulsion from national competition does a hell of a lot to address the larger problem if it makes colleges think twice about covering such crimes up.) At the same time, he ends Happy Valley by lamenting the rush of the crowds back to the stadium (“Bill-lieve!” read signs that reference the new coach, Bill O’Neill), which he likens to a kind of nationalism — a spectacle that swallows all doubt in a swell of adulation. This is a man who has likely taught Triumph of the Will.

The above review is just a few hundred more words in the trillions that have been written about Sandusky, Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, and the thousands (at least) of rapists whose assaults on women in college campuses and in the armed forces have gone unreported or unpunished. Unless you were one of said rapists or someone who permitted them by your inaction to operate (in which case, damn you to hell), you are not directly culpable. But the spate of documentaries on the subject (Happy Valley might well be the best of them) means you can no longer look away with saying, “I’m going to look away.” Here it is, folks, in your face. Will you look or return to your own private Happy Valley?