“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – Edmund Burke
With “Happy Valley,” director Amir Bar-Lev (“The Tillman Story,” “My Kid Could Paint That“) examines the Jerry Sandusky scandal, and Americans’ tendency to worship their heroes to the point where they turn a blind eye to atrocities they committed, as long as those idols provide their fans with whatever escapist pleasures they crave.
Would Sandusky, the former assistant coach for the Penn State football team, who was given 60 years in prison for sexually molesting at least ten boys, one of them his own adopted son, be allowed to continue his heinous acts for almost another decade after being caught by the administration if he was the university’s jolly janitor instead? Would Joe Paterno, the legendary head coach, still beloved by many Penn State football fans, hesitate to go directly to the police for even a second after catching Sandusky in the act of molestation if Sandusky was a liberal arts professor? Would the thousands of fans who pulled down streetlights and turned over a TV van while threatening to burn it in “protest” of Paterno being fired from his position because he turned a blind eye to Sandusky’s actions be so energized about this “injustice” if Paterno was the team’s bus driver instead of the man who brought so many victories to his team?
For those of us who are not fans of the Penn State football team, or football in general, our thoughts regarding the case are usually clear cut: Sandusky easily deserved the sentence he received, and Paterno should have been held accountable, perhaps even demonized, for ignoring Sandusky’s heinous acts and letting at least five more children get sexually assaulted during the years following his cover-up. We’re fully removed from the intense passion that surrounds big time football fandom, so we can make a more objective and clear-minded judgment call. And yet, how many cinephiles continue to admire and anticipate the work of Roman Polanski given his controversial background?
For the citizens of Happy Valley, the now ironic affectionate nickname residents of the Penn State campus and the surrounding area gave their neighborhood, the case surrounding Sandusky’s actions are clear-cut: He destroyed those boys’ lives, therefore he deserves to burn in hell for all they care. To these fans, Paterno’s case represents the other extreme: He was a blameless hero who became the scapegoat of the university administration. Even when the infamous Freeh Report proved that Paterno directly covered up the abuses, fans still rallied behind him.
Bar-Lev focuses a considerable amount of his film’s running time on the “protests” that followed Paterno’s firing as head coach. Thousands of his supporters flooded the streets with a pathetically black-and-white slogan: “Fuck Jerry Sandusky, we want Joe Paterno!” In their minds, the one bad apple was removed from the basket, and now it was time to enjoy football again. During one of the most eye-opening moments in “Happy Valley,” one of Paterno’s sons addresses the crowd, stating that even though he appreciates the support, everyone should pray for and think about the sexual abuse victims first. It’s a sequence that highlights the disordered priorities of many in Happy Valley.
Bar-Lev admirably paints as objective a portrait as possible around the many painful ways the Sandusky case impacted the residents of Happy Valley. The mainstream media had already sensationalized the scandal, offering familiarly narrow views full of empty labels, but thankfully, Bar-Lev avoids being similarly shortsighted and salacious.
His at times enraging, at times heartbreaking, yet always fascinating and engaging documentary manages to give the defenders of all sides of the argument a fair chance to express themselves. Bar-Lev adopts a low-key and under-stylized visual approach, which works perfectly with the delicate subject at hand.
The most painful story belongs to Matt Sandusky, Jerry’s adopted son. After initially denying any allegations of abuse, Matt finally testified that he was sexually assaulted by his adopted father, and was ostracized by his family as a reward for his honesty. “Ninety percent of my time with him was amazing”, he confesses with tearful eyes, “It was that ten percent that was incredibly hurtful.”
Amir Bar-Lev is one of the most talented and underrated documentary filmmakers of his generation. His previous doc, if we don’t count his concert film “12-12-12,” was the excellent “The Tillman Story,” which also examined Americans’ willingness to cover up the ugly truth in order to serve a more pleasing narrative. “Happy Valley” seals his reputation as one of the best names in his field.
As it did with the actual case, “Happy Valley” will divide audiences and create heated discussions over the many contradicting reactions given by its subjects. However, there’s one point that won’t be controversial: It’s one of the best documentaries of the year. [A-]