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The town of State College, the home of Penn State University, has long been known as Happy Valley, and its iconic figure for more than 40 years was Joe Paterno, the head coach of the school's storied football team. His program was lauded for not only its success on the field but also its students' achievements in the classroom. And Paterno took on mythic national stature as "Saint Joe." But then, in November 2011, everything came crashing down. Longtime Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with 40 counts of child sex abuse, setting off a firestorm of accusations about who failed to protect the children of Happy Valley. Was Sandusky's abuse an "open secret" in the town? Did Coach Paterno and the Penn State administration value their football program more than the lives of Sandusky's victims? Filmed over the course of the year after Sandusky's arrest as key players in the scandal agreed to share their stories, Happy Valley deconstructs the story we think we know to uncover a much ... Written by
Sundance Film Festival
he titular "Happy Valley" that director Amir Bar-Lev's fascinating documentary about the Penn State sexual abuse scandal focuses on sits right in my back yard. Growing up the son of a rabid college football fan (go Temple!), I spent dozens of freezing cold Saturday afternoons watching my father's pitiful Temple Owls get their asses handed to them. Several of those beatings came at the hands of Joe Paterno's Penn State Nittany Lions (that's pronounced "Nit-knee"). My father hated Joe Paterno. "He's an a**hole," he would tell my 10 year old self. My grandfather, a Temple alumni and highly regarded high school football coach, actually knew Joe Paterno personally. He was much more diplomatic. "He thinks he's God," is how he put it, if I recall correctly. And so, my opinions on Joe Paterno, Penn State and their fans have been likely influenced since the day I was born, making me an easy mark for Bar-Lev's slyly biased documentary.
For those unfamiliar with the horrific events that surround Happy Valley, it goes like this: in 2011, Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was accused and convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse to minors that occurred between 1994-2009. Sandusky met his victims through a non-profit charity for wayward youths he funded called "The Second Mile," earning their trust through various predatory means (free games, meals, attention they weren't getting at home). As if that weren't horrible enough, it was eventually revealed that someone had caught Sandusky raping a boy in the showers, alerted head coach Joe Paterno who in turn alerted his superiors. And then nothing. No police. No disciplinary actions. No justice. And that's what Happy Valley takes aim at. We can all agree that Jerry Sandusky is a monster, but what of the revered man who played a part in just letting the monster roam free, enabling him to damage more lives than he already had? Shouldn't he have to answer for his part in all of this? The answer, if you're a Penn State football fan, is a resounding, "NO!"
Bar-Lev populates his documentary with folks who are varying degrees of pro-Paterno. From his own immediate family who will defend their father's legacy and character to their own graves right down to the flustered Penn State football fan sitting in front of his bedroom wall scrapbook of Penn State pendants, posters and plaques complaining about everyone getting bent out of shape about this whole thing and not focusing on what really matters: football. Rather than force a reaction from his subjects, a la Michael Moore, Bar-Lev takes a page right out of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart's book and simply lets them talk and talk and talk until they hang themselves with their own words, not even realizing it in most cases. It's a funny trick, for sure, but after the 5th time you see it unfold you kind of get the point. These people are blinded by their fandom, biased by their own admiration for Joe Paterno. From the fans who traveled to take a photo with the since removed bronze Joe Paterno statue to the fans who rallied and then rioted when Paterno was fired from his head coach position in the aftermath of the FBI report that detailed his involvement in Sandusky's web of nightmares, these people will not stray from St. Joe's side.
But who is Joe Paterno and why does he have this effect on people? Happy Valley does its due diligence to give a little bit of history on Paterno and his good deeds throughout the years. That juxtaposed with video of the frail, fragile coach during his last few months make a case that he was a good man, flawed, but rooted in good intentions. Of course, we all know the old adage about good intentions and where the road they're paved in lead to. I believe they lead to the Orange Bowl, according to this gentleman with the Penn State logo painted on his naked torso.
In the end, Happy Valley is a fascinating look at this culture of fandom that even my own football-obsessed father can't reconcile. To be so blinded by winning at all costs that you'd sacrifice the innocence of a child it's tragic and infuriating. And that's the feeling you'll get while watching this film. I only wish that it wasn't as one-sided, albeit ever so subtly, so that the other side's case wasn't presented in the condescending tone it is. Of course, how are you supposed to defend someone embroiled in a conspiracy of this nature without looking like a complete asshole? These are the kinds of problems us Temple fans never have to worry about.
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