Film

Post-Paterno, Happy Valley Finds Penn State Thumbing Its Wounds

by

Here’s a terrifying thought: What if there’s one thing in your life you feel so passionately about that you miss out on the bigger truths? That your love of a team or a community — or your aggrievement against other teams and communities — might blind you into wearing an “I Am Darren Wilson” shirt, or attacking feminist critics of video games, or gathering with your neighbors to chant “Fuck the media!” just because your university fired your favorite football coach for failing to take meaningful action against a serial pedophile.

To outsiders, the tears of Penn State fans seem pretty far down the list of tragedies ramified by the Jerry Sandusky case, in which a celebrated assistant coach was convicted of molesting young boys. In Happy Valley, a rich and troubling documentary about the case and its fallout, we see supporters of ousted coach Joe Paterno take to the streets, tip over a car, and generally make with the wailing and gnashing of teeth. They were victims, too, they seemed to insist.

Interviewed months later by the filmmakers, many of them are still tender about it — but at least now they’re as quick to damn Sandusky as they are the press. Still, the school could stand to run its most ardent fans through a course titled “Understanding How You Come Across.” Witness the class-of-’13 hunk who carps,”When everyone attacked Joe Paterno and Penn State, it wasn’t an attack on just the administration — it was an attack on the community.” Slightly more circumspect is Lou Prato, former director of the Penn State All-Sports Museum. His lament: “We’re all smeared — you wear your Penn State shirt, and people look at you differently.”

Of course, not all devotees of Paterno — the beloved head coach of the PSU Nittany Lions from ’66 until 2011 — seemed to weep more for the football than they did for the boys groomed and abused by Sandusky. One raw scene finds a grim-faced protester, middle-aged and apparently local, standing beside a campus statue of Paterno, holding a hand-drawn sign: “Paterno, the Cover-Up Artist! Paterno, the Liar! Paterno, the Pedophile-Enabler!” A woman in a shower cap counters with a bigger sign: “The Joe We Know! May He Rest in Peace! God Will Take Care of the Rest!”

It’s a battle over which Joe will be known now. Later, a big dude ambles up and tries to snatch the original protester’s sign away. The big guy wants a photo with the Paterno statue, and the protester straight-up calls him a “pedophile lover.” Later, the anti-Joe protester’s confrontation with an angry woman descends into shoving — watching them scrap at each other is almost as uncomfortable as watching the vintage news segment, included in the film, where a network reporter praises one of Sandusky’s camps for underprivileged youth by saying, “Jerry Sandusky seems happiest when he’s mixing it up with his special kids.” (Penn State tore that statue down in 2012; alumni have raised $300,000 to have a replacement built in downtown State College.)

Director Amir Bar-Lev lays bare the heart of a community that believed everything was perfect in a world that never is — a community eager to tell us that Paterno’s late-life sin need not wipe out everything else admirable about him. Since the film comes to us so soon after Sandusky’s trial, “Saint” Joe’s shocking death, and the NCAA’s slapping Penn State with unprecedented fines and suspensions, most of Bar-Lev’s interviewees don’t argue this with anything like nuance. Kudos to the occasional cooler head, like Michael Pilato, the artist struggling with whether to remove Paterno’s image from Inspiration, a mural honoring Penn State football: Eventually, he elects to paint over the coach’s halo. Is a legacy tarnished different from a legacy erased?

Pilato is heartening, but even those harboring the most blinkered petulance prove moving: Some bright thing that once nourished them has been snuffed, and there’s no easy way to talk about that loss. Yes, Sandusky was a monster, but why must the NCAA invalidate 24 seasons’ worth of football? And how many times must fans denounce Sandusky before the rest of us let them just be fans again?

Of course, their pain can’t measure up to that of Sandusky’s victims. Nothing in this film (and little in any other movie this year) compares to the scenes of Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt, recounting his realization that the charges of pedophilia against Sandusky squared with the ways Sandusky had treated him, too — treatment he’d never been brave enough to admit. Sandusky the younger found the courage to speak out against the local hero who had lifted him from poverty.

Happy Valley clarifies recent news rather than merely recounting it, although everything’s still too fresh and unsettled for the film to feel definitive. Bar-Lev’s treatment of the charges and the trial is quick and compelling, frank about the charges against Sandusky and unsparing in pursuit of what Paterno knew when. Paterno’s family, still somewhat shaken, are fascinating interview subjects; by the end, the late, great coach comes to seem like something too complex to be captured in civic sculpture or a protest sign: a man of character and achievement who spent a lifetime meaning well and doing well — but then, bafflingly, doing far too little when it mattered most. Raze a statue, raise a statue, whatever. What matters is that wiping him from history would only make it easier to repeat his failings — and those of the people who only see the joes they know.