Film Documents Life Around Scandalized Penn State

The people on screen in “Happy Valley,” Amir Bar-Lev’s powerful new documentary, frequently describe Penn State football as a religion. This is almost not a metaphor. The film pays periodic visits to a large outdoor mural in State College, Pa., where Nittany Lion luminaries are depicted as if they were figures in an Italian Renaissance tableau of biblical luminaries. At one point, a halo is painted in over the head of Joe Paterno, the former Penn State head football coach who died in 2012, a few months after being fired from the position he had held for 46 seasons. Mr. Bar-Lev’s interview subjects sometimes describe Paterno as a god or a saint, and he is almost universally recalled as a beloved and benevolent patriarch.

Later the halo will be painted over, and a statue of Paterno, a landmark for fans and tourists, will be uprooted from its place outside the football stadium. The cause of this downfall is well known far beyond Central Pennsylvania. In 2012, Jerry Sandusky, a longtime defensive coach under Paterno, was convicted on 45 counts related to the sexual abuse of children. Mr. Sandusky had used his charity, which ostensibly helped poor and vulnerable youngsters, as a way of finding and grooming victims and camouflaging his crimes in good works.

But Mr. Sandusky’s actions are not the subject of “Happy Valley,” which recounts the sorry tale of his trial and its aftermath. His monstrousness has been amply documented in Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting by Sara Ganim and others at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., and in exhaustive, sometimes prurient coverage on national television. Mr. Bar-Lev, whose other documentaries include “The Tillman Story” and “My Kid Could Paint That,” is more interested in the storm of shame, denial and anger — the crisis of faith — that washed over State College as attention turned from Mr. Sandusky to the team and the university administration. Did anyone know that a sexual predator was at large in the football program, using its prestige to his own despicable ends? Did anyone try to stop him?

The answers, especially as articulated in a report overseen by Louis J. Freeh, the former director of the F.B.I., only deepened the sense of crisis at Penn State. Suspicions about Mr. Sandusky had been raised as early as 1998, but nothing was done. The N.C.A.A. banned the team from bowl games and nullified all victories from 1998 to 2011, taking away Paterno’s status as the most winning coach in major college football.

Mr. Bar-Lev includes searching, painful interviews with Paterno’s widow and two of his sons, and with Matt Sandusky, Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son, who offers a harrowing glimpse into the household of a serial pedophile. There are conversations with critics and partisans of Penn State and its football team, including a student who thinks the punishment of the university went much too far and a lawyer who believes it did not go far enough.

“Happy Valley” also records some ugly and disturbing moments, including the campus riot the night after Paterno’s firing, when students knocked down lampposts and upended cars. A strain of self-pitying defensiveness is evident among Penn State loyalists, who defiantly chant Paterno’s name at gatherings and ritualistically blame “the media” for the university’s woes.

The implications of the film extend far beyond State College, which is at once an isolated enclave of sports fanaticism and a symbol for other such places. The cult of personality around Paterno — a man paradoxically hailed as a deity and praised for his modesty — is hardly unique. In many states, the highest-paid public employee coaches a college football or basketball team. At the end of “Happy Valley,” we see merchandise featuring the name and likeness of Paterno’s successor, Bill O’Brien (who has since left for the N.F.L.).

“Happy Valley,” even as it revisits past events, has a chilling timeliness. Mr. Sandusky’s crimes are his alone, but there are enough other scandals related to college sports to suggest a pattern of dysfunction. Big-time college sports represent an area of American culture where democratic values give way to other, more atavistic impulses: the worship of authority, the celebration of discipline and conformity, the absorption of the individual’s voice into the roar of the crowd. Societies where statues are erected in honor of living people and then pulled down in disgrace are not usually happy places.

Source: NY TIMES