REVIEW: Happy Valley

2 09 2015

Happy ValleyAmir Bar-Lev’s “Happy Valley,” a documentary account of the fall and rebirth of the Penn State football program, initially unfolds as a pretty straightforward chronicle of events.  We get a definitive look at how Jerry Sandusky managed to use his charitable organization as a front to sexually abuse young, underprivileged children as well as how the university’s athletic program turned a blind eye to his exploits.

Establishing this baseline of information takes about 30 minutes, which is fine.  It plays like a really good ESPN “30 for 30” program.  But once it moves past the firing of head coach Joe Paterno and resignation of university president Graham Spanier, “Happy Valley” starts to get significantly more interesting.  By spending the majority of the film exploring the aftermath, Bar-Lev shows an interest in more than just recounting events.  He wants to interrogate them.

The film explores the lingering question of how to handle the legacy of Paterno, the winningest coach in college football – and also a man who aided and abetted a criminal act.  Not unlike what has happened in the wake of all the allegations against Bill Cosby, people must confront the dissonance between the memory of a man who provided them years of happiness and the reality of a person who committed a deplorable act.  How do we reconcile that?  How do we weigh legal guilt against a greater moral guilt?

These are tough issues to resolve, and Bar-Lev shows people on both sides of the aisle.  He interviews a student who rants angrily from his dorm room about how no action Paterno took should ever scrub his coaching record.  Yet he also shows a man who stands in front of a statue erected in Paterno’s honor, refusing to let those who want to take a picture with it leave without fully understanding the weight of his actions.

Ultimately, these two sides of the coin point to a larger dichotomy Bar-Lev explores: individual vs. social culpability.  How much are we, the fans of the sport, willing to excuse in the name of victory?  Again, this is not easy to answer.  But it is necessary.  B+3stars

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