What Did Joe Know and When Did He Know It?

Amir Bar-Lev, NYC, 6/19/14

Amir Bar-Lev, NYC, 6/19/14

In Pennsylvania’s Happy Valley, community identity has long been inextricably entwined with that of the legendary Penn State football team, coached for more than 40 years by the iconic and much-loved Joe Paterno, aka JoePa, aka Saint Joe (who turned down lucrative employment with the New England Patriots to stay in State College) and whose athletes were successful in the classroom as well as on the gridiron.

In footage in the beginning of director Amir Bar-Lev’s riveting and even-handed new documentary, “Happy Valley,” Paterno says, “College football is something special.  Hopefully we’ll never lose sight of that.  Or screw it up.”

The screw up, in 2011, was a conflagration–former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was charged in November of that year with 40 counts of child sex abuse, involving eight boys over 15 years.  And after the first day of the trial, Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt, who had been lifted out of an impoverished  family, and who had denied having been abused when interviewed by the police (“Jerry had seemed like a savior to me…I needed the family”), joined the accusers and eventually testified.

The conflagration consumed Paterno (fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees on November 9, 2011), Penn State’s president, the football program and Happy Valley, PA’s, sense of self, as information came out that suggested that Paterno may have dissuaded university officials from going to the authorities after “something of a sexual nature” happened between Sandusky and a young boy in a shower on campus.

Interviewed in the film, Matt Jordan, a film professor at Penn State, says that Paterno’s firing was the “loss of the father figure” for the community, adding that Paterno “kept Happy Valley happy.”  And the denial and grief were compounded when Paterno died of complications from lung cancer on January 22, 2012.

When Sandusky was convicted on June 2, 2012, by a jury that had deliberated for over 20 hours, the crowd at the courthouse cheered wildly, like at the stadium.  Local attorney Andrew Shubin says that the community had been fiercely polarized and many in it were “as angry for the damage done to their football program and way of life as for the damage done to the kids” and with the “predator knocked out” were eager to dismiss ambiguities and restore “normal.”

The strength of “Happy Valley” is that it doesn’t ignore the ambiguities and contradictions of the horrific tragedy.  The film provides space for Paterno’s wife and sons’ profound sadness, and for them to discuss his legacy.  And Paterno is revealed as a figure of almost Shakespearean proportions, a man of many great qualities and talents–who developed young men’s characters, not just their athletic abilities, encouraging intellectual curiosity and leadership skills–destroyed by an inexplicable and grievously wrong, ongoing choice.

And while Bar-Lev shows, in the wake of gob-smacking NCAA sanctions, the crowd embracing “O’Brien’s Lions,” 2012’s “new era in Penn State  football,” he also includes professor Jordan, who comments on Sandusky’s conviction and the larger American situation, “We create a shaming spectacle to allow the culture to move on without doing anything.” And Shubin, the Pennsylvania lawyer, says “the focus on football (was) a lost opportunity for the community.”

“Happy Valley” will open on Wednesday, November 19 in New York at Village East Cinema and on Friday, November 21 in Los Angeles and will be available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VuDu, Google Play and YouTube.

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