‘Happy Valley’: Kettle, meet pot

November 19, 2014

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The culture surrounding college sports has become so polluted with commercial concerns – from bowl games and TV revenue to paraphernalia, video-game money and beyond – that the recent events at Florida State (involving player lawlessness) only seem to underscore the issues. They also make it more apparent that college football is just minor-league NFL, including its willingness to ignore character issues.

So Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary, “Happy Valley,” about the Penn State sex scandal that unfolded from mid-2011 to 2012, may surprise people. While Bar-Lev makes no apologies for Penn State and its handling of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, neither does he pile on in vilifying late coach Joe Paterno and Penn State as a whole.

If anything, that’s one of Bar-Lev’s most provocative points: How much punishment is enough? At what point does the blame stop and life go on? 

Obviously, for Sandusky’s victims, the assaults will resonate and haunt forever – consider Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt, who talks to the camera about why he defended Sandusky, despite being one of Sandusky’s prey. But Bar-Lev is after something bigger here.

Even as he recaps the events that led to Sandusky’s conviction and the firing of Paterno, Penn State’s president and athletic director, Bar-Lev looks at the media furor that surrounded the events. In doing so, he raises questions about the face-saving actions of the university and the NCAA, as well as the national urge to purge, punish and forget.

The NCAA stripped Penn State of all of its wins from 1998-2011, from the first report that Sandusky was behaving inappropriately surfaced until Paterno was fired. The university, in turn, removed a statue of Paterno, as well as surrounding plaques detailing the record for each of his seasons.

Yet, as the film notes, Sandusky acted alone. While Paterno and the university failed in their duty to report it when someone caught him, the responsible parties have all been punished or face trial. But the university and the students still carry the shame. As one student notes, he’s upset that, forevermore, anytime he mentions that he went to Penn State, he automatically must express sympathy for Sandusky’s victims.

But Bar-Lev’s film also captures the disconnect that’s at work at Florida State as well, which can be described as, “We want our college football.” Period

Yet there’s even a schizophrenia to that, in the Penn State case. The NCAA chided Penn State for letting itself get caught up in the pervasive culture of football – the winning-at-all-costs mindset that, in fact, is one of the cornerstones of NCAA football – and most of big-money college sports in general.

Even as the NCAA tarred Penn State with that brush, it ignored the fact that winning WASN’T everything to Paterno. He taught a team-based approach (which included not putting players’ names on their jerseys, something that changed the season after he was fired). And Paterno graduated more players with better academic records than any other coach working.

There’s more, plenty more, and Bar-Lev, director of the stirring “The Tillman Story,” teases out several other ideas that will ultimately leave you of two minds.

Indeed, the fact that the viewer comes out of “Happy Valley” understanding both sides of this troubling story is a tribute to how well this film threads the needle. It is one of the year’s most provocative films, precisely because it undercuts every expectation the viewer might have going into it.

 

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