Happy Valley is not a recounting of the Sandusky case itself, but the way the community, which held football up as part of its DNA, reacted to the many revelations and developments in the case. Director Amir Bar-Lev does his best to stay objective, and approach the story from all sides -- Paterno's widow Suzanne, two of his sons, and Matt, one of Sandusky's sons, were all interviewed for the documentary. Yet, it's hard to look at the footage and dismiss the side of the story that suggests Penn State's relationship with football may be unhealthy, as fans refuse to even consider the possibility that Paterno may have played a part when Sandusky makes for such a simple target.
Following the firing of Paterno as the team's head coach, the students of Penn State rioted, flowing into the streets in droves to chant Paterno's nickname, "Joe Pa." One interview subject recounts watching the students -- mostly white, 20-something sports fans -- tip over a news van and attempt to get the gasoline to ignite. He comments that for him, it was the moment "state college lost its innocence," inadvertently implying that the tipping of a news van might've been a more severe moral blow for the university's reputation than the actual sex scandal. Another young fan is interviewed, talking about the vibe after the scandal. When another spectator tells him to tone down his chants against the other team on the first game after Paterno's exit, he remembers saying, "I don't care what happened, it's always about that! This is Penn State football!" The five minutes of qualification that "of course I feel sorry, but..." which follow this comment speak for themselves.
Although it's hard to be sympathetic to crowds of people who, just as the NCAA accused, clearly place football ahead of other interests, Bar-Lev does manage to create a limited amount of sympathy for Paterno. While it's almost impossible for to imagine a valid reason for Paterno not to take his information to the authorities, he was clearly a man who helped bring a community together and did a number of great and valuable things for many of the kids who played for him. Bar-Lev also has footage of Paterno and Sandusky together doing some sort of interview, and there is a sense that Paterno is tolerating a man he doesn't like because he believes Sandusky is earnest in his desire to open a charity. Paterno's biographer also recalls Joe lamenting that he should've done more shortly before his death. None of these things absolve Paterno of the potential responsibility, but Bar-Lev does his best to paint a picture of a good man who was faced with a decision and happened to make the wrong one.
When it comes to a crime like Sandusky's, it is hard to imagine the discourse being anything but extreme. Two of Bar-Lev's most fascinating moments center around art relating to Paterno. A local artist who painted a mural featuring Sandusky and Paterno shows up to paint Sandusky out of it, and then wrestles with his feelings again when the Freeh report holds Paterno accountable. Later, at the statue of Paterno that stood outside the stadium until it was eventually removed, a single protester stands next to the statue all day with a sign accusing Joe of being an enabler while fans attempt to take photos with it. Whether or not Bar-Lev's film will bring anything to the debate is questionable (he seems too reluctant to have a point of view, which feels like a cop-out), but this microcosm of the overall debate is fascinating, boils humanity down to instinct and emotion.
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