Home Video Hovel: Happy Valley, by Aaron Pinkston
Much like Amir Bar-Lev’s The Tillman Story, Happy Valley is a movie set around American football that really isn’t much about American football. Strangely, though, the film which chronicles the events surrounding the Penn State University child abuse scandals isn’t really much about that, either – at least that’s not what the film really seems to be interested in. Once Happy Valley is able to move past the point of Jerry Sandusky’s very publicized conviction it is able to get into the real meat. Though the entire first half of the film is an account of the events that led to lives ruined and legacies tarnished, Happy Valley hits its stride while being a film about how a community reacts to a tragic situation which turns the world against them.
For those of you who may not know the history of this scandal, it involves Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach for the Penn State University’s heralded team, and Joe Paterno, the legendary coach with the most wins in Division I college football history. In 2011, Paterno was approached by a graduate assistant who had witnessed Sandusky involved with a young boy in the locker room showers. Paterno told administrative officials at Penn State and eventually Sandusky was arrested, more victims came out to testify against him and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Soon thereafter, intense speculation from the public and media, as well as NCAA officials, turned the heat up on Paterno, questioning whether he did enough to protect more young men and boys – speculation of cover-ups ranging all the way back to 1998 surfaced. Paterno was subsequently fired, the NCAA erased wins from his all-time records, and he died shortly thereafter.
Bar-Lev sets the important background for the film by letting people in the know tell this story in long form, uninterrupted. The lives of Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno are told by Sandusky’s adopted son and Paterno’s biographer, which provides a singular basic level that is then expanded by more voices. Seeing Jerry Sandusky’s history is sad and darkly prophetic. Re-viewing a nightly news piece (I believe from World News Tonight with Peter Jennings) praising Sandusky’s integrity and charity for his summer camp for young boys and hearing the details of how Matt Sandusky came to be adopted are now shocking clues right in front of us. Strangely similar, this is exactly the rhetoric of an independent report that was funded by the Paterno family – that Sandusky was a predator capable of his actions secretly although in plain sight.
Throughout the film, many of the storytellers are sympathetic to the film’s two subjects (Paterno especially, who is much easier to defend), mostly made up of family members and PSU students, coaches, and football fans. This gives a definite slant that Paterno properly did his due diligence in reporting a crime. I don’t get the impression that Bar-Lev necessarily thinks the situation is so black-and-white, but who he has chosen to interview tells a certain side of the story. We do hear voices from the media watchdogs, mostly from ESPN, but they aren’t personal, presented in grainy, disconnected audio captured off of a television or radio.
Happy Valley’s most stirring images aren’t from trial footage or even descriptions from victims, but the community rallying together against the outsides, especially media types who seem rabidly out to get their beloved icon. Linking a defense of PSU football to a defense of a criminal monster is obviously unfair, but an easy jump to make. The film captures a few opinions from students on this idea directly, and it is an interesting byproduct of the situation – not the most critical discussion to be had, but in the film’s context of community, a vital one. Watching footage from student riots following Paterno’s firing a second time, outside of a context from talking-head sports programs and now alongside more detailed explanations of intentions, I can see the other perspective. Like any massive, intense demonstration, there are a lot of different motives and opinions in those crowds, and perhaps Bar-Lev could have looked at them a little more critically, but that goes against the overall narrative arc of his film.
A final interesting question that Happy Valley approaches is the price of a scapegoat. Following the Freeh report, which was a very harsh critic of Paterno’s actions (though mostly through speculation), Penn State and the NCAA quickly and thoroughly tried to rewrite history without the community’s most beloved figure. They tore his statue down, took his name off of campus buildings, tooks his wins and accomplished out of the record books. This, more than anything else, seemed to offend his supporters. It begs the question, one that the film examines closely: What does this accomplish? By doing this, are we overlooking, even covering up tragedy just for the sake of posterity? In this particular case, do Paterno’s actions or non-actions overshadow the obvious good he has done for this community over 50 years? More simply, do his actions or non-actions have anything to do with football wins? For that last question, it is an interesting alteration of separating the art from the artist, which is a favorite debate on Battleship Pretension.
Complicating all of these issues, Paterno died very soon after being fired as the coach of Penn State – as if it was the only thing keeping him alive. This leaves many unanswered and perhaps more appropriate penalties from taking place. Joe Paterno’s involvement in the Jerry Sandusky scandal is deeply complicated. For Happy Valley, at least for those who speak within the film, Paterno is a figure we should celebrate within our culture.
As a film, part of me is at odds with Happy Valley. It takes a point-of-view that I don’t necessarily agree with, but its strong narrative vision on an off-key aspect of the Jerry Sandusky situation prevents it from simply being a comprehensive rundown of events. It doesn’t really come down with a definitive judgement on Joe Paterno, not that it necessarily can or should, but it feels open-ended. Depending on your personal perspective of these events, that may be frustrating. There are a lot of interesting questions surrounding the aftermath of a tragedy, how we reassess our heroes and how we band together to defend those we love. Happy Valley may not be able to clearly verbalize everything it trying to say, but it is trying to say something we wouldn’t expect to hear.