Happy Valley is a film, like Whiplash, that caught my attention when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year. Directed by Amir Bar-Lev, who directed, The Tillman Story, which told the story of Pat Tillman and the cover up of his death by the United States military, was one of my favorite films of 2010, and I remember putting it on my top ten list that year. I was really impressed by the way that film was told in the documentary format, as you had some very raw opinions and talking bits from the Tillman family and friends, rather than just some talking heads who knew a little about the situation around them. Happy Valley is a story that the nation has been shocked and appalled by for what is now three years. It tells the story of Penn State football, and how legendary head coach Joe Paterno and his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky were right there with God as the most influential and admired people in the small college town of State College, Pennsylvania. Three years ago, it was uncovered that Jerry Sandusky had been sexually abusing young boys for many years now. He was immediately arrested and brought to justice in a matter of months. However, the story isn’t as black and white as you would think it would be. Here’s my review of Happy Valley.
After Sandusky was arrested in November of 2011, there was mass panic among the higher ups at Penn State. The President of the school resigned, the board of Trustees fired Joe Paterno in the middle of his final year at the university, and final year in general as Paterno died of cancer in January of 2012. Then the story got even more twisted and complex, as a report later came out claiming that there was a massive cover up of Sandusky’s abuse, with The President of the University, the Athletic Director, and even Paterno, were all involved in not letting the authorities know of the situation. Throughout the documentary, you get up close and personal with the people of State College, as well as the family of Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son Matt, who later came out as one of the countless children who were abused by Sandusky over several years.
I’ll be completely honest with you when I say that this story throughout the many years it’s gone on for has made my blood boil. I’ve never been a fan of Penn State, mainly because I was born and raised a Texas Longhorns fan, but growing up watching college football, I always had a respect for Joe Paterno, and the institution that Paterno had established at Penn State for decades. My eyes were glued to the television during each element and break in this story, as was most of the country. I was just as shocked when the Penn State fired Paterno, not because he had anything to do with it, but because the University panicked, and did what you usually do when you panic, which is shoot with your eyes closed. The whole case is just disgusting and awful, but justice has been served, just not in the way that many had hoped it would have been. I don’t think the NCAA should have stripped Paterno of all his wins during those years, and the University shouldn’t have gotten rid of his statue, as they show in the film as a very tense and unsettling encounter with a protester and local Penn State fans.
But what I admired about the film is that it didn’t point any fingers throughout the film. It was really fascinating to see what the men and women in the community of Happy Valley have to say on the whole situation, and get their viewpoint on what was really going on in the area when the media, both big and small, had congregated onto State College to cover this story. Amir Bar-Lev continues to prove with this film that he’s one of the finest documentary filmmakers of his generation with how he tells this story through the eyes of the people that were personally involved with the situation, and not just a bunch of talking heads just talking about how outrageous and evil the whole situation was for 90 minutes. And what I also admire is that they were making this documentary when many of the key moments throughout this story were unfolding. As I mentioned before, there’s a scene that involves a man holding a piece of paper next to Joe Paterno’s statue that reads “Pedophile enabler”, and how random bystanders who want to take a photo with the statue react to the man with the sheet of paper. It was very tense and a very unique sequence in the film, and I was really impressed that the filmmakers decided to make this film while all of this was going down.
And what makes this story such a heartbreaker is that everybody got hurt in this case. Not only did the victims of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse were hurt, but also the University, the football program, Paterno and his family, even Sandusky and his family, and the fans. They show the reactions of the fans when the NCAA announced the sanctions against Penn State, and how the NCAA was doing everything in their power to cover up what Paterno had established in the community. But what makes Happy Valley really unique is that because it doesn’t point any fingers or side with anybody on this issue, the film really opens your eyes up to the case as a whole, and what the impact of one man’s evil and cruelty can impact a lot of people. Happy Valley is one of the best documentaries of the year and one of the best films of 2014. The film is currently playing in select theaters and on Demand right now. If you have the option of seeing Happy Valley, no matter if you’re a fan of college football or a fan of true crime stories, I highly recommend you see this film.