The scandal that occurred on the campus of Penn State University is one of the most vile, tragic cases of the last 50 years. Jerry Sandusky was indeed convicted of his crimes (52 counts of child molestation) but the reality is most of them should never have been allowed to happen at all. When it was announced over a year and a half ago that Amir Bar-Lev was going to be documenting the scandal in a new film, a breath of anticipation should have been exhaled by everyone on the right side of this story.
This is the filmmaker responsible for tearing down the walls on The Tillman Story, one of the most thorough and powerful documentaries of the last decade. Within that framework, the director cut through the harmful misinformation from the powerful bureaucracy seeking to fulfill their own legacy, bringing nothing but more questions and tears from the victims’ family. In what could be the biggest miscarriage of justice yet, Bar-Lev has disgracefully played right into the hands of people he once exposed as the enemies, burying the lede to a sickening degree.
Casual followers of the story that went down on the college campus (and Sandusky’s basement) will only get a fraction of it in this film. The case came to light after it was revealed that assistant coach Mike McQueery walked in on Sandusky anally raping a 10-year boy in the locker room shower. He reported the incident to Penn State’s legendary coach, Joe Paterno, who subsequently told athletic director Tim Curley. Over a week later, McQueery again recounted the story to Curley and Gary Schultz, who oversaw the campus police department. That was in 2002. In 2011, Sandusky was finally arrested for his crimes. What happened in-between that time (or what didn’t happen) is the reason several members of the Penn State institution were fired, including Joe Paterno.
This is where Bar-Lev is interested in picking up this story. The support and subsequent riots following the announcement of Paterno’s termination was a portrait of the kind of insanely devoted cult-like attitude that comes with the pride of college sports. It was almost as scary as the Sandusky story, watching the blind support over a beloved figure they felt had become the real victim in all of this. Seeing footage of the students’ own cover-up of their behavior with a candlelight vigil for the accusers the next time the cameras were on them is enough to produce projectile vomiting. Bar-Lev holding his own candle up to this community and reflecting the mirror solely on the cult of their own legacy would have been a fascinating indictment. Except Bar-Lev makes one fatal mistake.
The further the filmmaker gets away from mentioning Sandusky and what he did, the closer he gets to turning this into a breakdown of how Joe Paterno was collateral damage in this whole scandal. Joe’s son, Jay, is featured prominently throughout the film (as he was in the news during the scandal) defending his father, as expected. Other key figures include one of the team’s players, who comes off as such a dimly-lit meathead, that bangs his head so hard for the football program, that he should be checked for concussions during the interview.
Paterno’s biographer, Joe Posnanski, speaks of wrestling with the allegations while he was in the middle of crafting his love letter to the coach. His demeanor leaves his ultimate slant without a shred of suspense. Then there is the painter who crafted the big Penn State mural featuring the history of the campus’ key players. A no-brainer to paint Sandusky out, but to be or not to be that halo around Joe Paterno’s head. The conclusion he comes to is also the final straw on what this documentary ultimately feels like.
Lost in all of this is the story of the victims. Surely the sensitive nature over the impact of their lives may have kept Bar-Lev from seeking them out or finding them unwilling to commit to the project. The one person he does get on camera is Sandusky’s stepson who relays how he ultimately remembered his own story of abuse at Jerry’s hands. Only once that bit is revealed, the film is turned back over almost exclusively to the Paterno clan getting out their side of the story. The sons, their supporters and even Joe’s wife, Sue, all have their say in how their patriarch was wronged by a media jumping to conclusions.
The sloppiness of purely blaming the media is the oldest trick in the book when it comes to the court of public opinion. If this was a worthy thesis, Bar-Lev should have dug as deep as he did with Pat Tillman’s story, laying out what we were told in the press and then reading between the lines. If Paterno was sentenced because of a misinterpretation of a line regarding what happened in 2002, then fine. But where is the discussion of the 1998 incident where Paterno did nothing but deny his knowledge and later said he had no idea a man could rape another man. Why is Sara Ganim, the 22 year-old (at the time) reporter who helped break the scandal, and uncovered further layers of it, never interviewed? If this is, indeed, a film about the “culture” of Happy Valley, why is it never asked or suggested how that influence allowed this to happen in the first place?
The film’s best scene has an older Penn State fan standing out in front of Paterno’s statue with a handwritten sign calling out the coach’s role in the cover-up. Hardcore fans show up to berate him, push him and tear up his sign. All so they can take a proud picture with a damn statue. Yet the context of this scene remains unclear in Bar-Lev’s narrative. Is this a mirror into outrageously ignorant behavior or a proud defiance against those who would dare tear down a hero to so many? Happy Valley is ultimately not about hardcore football fans or an investigative piece that pokes holes in their martyrdom. It is a big sloppy kiss to Joe Paterno and his family that forgets about the victims just as quickly as he did.