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





REVIEW: The Tillman Story

25 06 2011

Many documentaries explore worlds we hardly know, exposing us to vast injustices and unimaginable horrors.  These are undeniably eye-opening, but they often don’t shock quite as much as documentaries that pull back the facade on stories we think we know.  “The Tillman Story” is in a class with the latter type of documentaries, showing us the truth about Pat Tillman’s life and death that the military didn’t want us to see on ESPN.

I remember being 11 years old and hearing the news that Pat Tillman, the man who gave up a career in the NFL to serve in the army for the love of his country, had been killed in Afghanistan.  Here was a man that was a symbol of patriotism, a banner for all the good in America.  I remember my dad telling me that Pat Tillman was a true American hero, and I think countless other parents told their kids the same thing.

Because of that, when Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan, the military saw the perfect martyr to regain some confidence in their mission and to give heroism a face that America could rally around.  They simply covered up the fact that he actually died by friendly fire (shot by his own men, for those unfamiliar with military jargon) and exalted him like a saint.  Little did they know that Pat’s family was not going to sit back and accept their version of events.  Motivated by justice and truth, two very American values, his mother Mary Tillman and various others pursue accountability from the military and acknowledgement of the reality of Pat’s death.

It’s hard to reexamine a story like Pat Tillman’s since it had become like a truth for me.  Now, we have to adjust the events in our mind: he can remain a hero for the choice he made, but he can no longer be seen with the same heroism in death.  Better yet, Amir Bar-Lev, with his fascinating “The Tillman Story,” doesn’t stop at asking us that question.  He challenges us to think about how much we need a hero or an inspiring tale.  Will we go so far as to accept fiction or ignorance to get it?  B+