The passion for college football in certain parts of our country almost resembles a cult in its intensity. And perhaps no team had a more devoted following than Joe Paterno’s Penn State program, which proudly won “the right way” on and off the field ever since he became head coach in 1966. His reputation was nonpareil in the sports world – until former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted in Nov. 2011 for molesting young boys on the Penn State campus. Paterno, then 85 years old, was fired, along with three other top University administrators, rocking the Penn State community, a.k.a. Happy Valley, to its core.
Into that storm came filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev (The Tillman Story). Happy Valley, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, captures the pain, the outrage, and the conflicting passions of people caught in the maelstrom. With interviews with State College locals, Penn State students, the Paterno family, and Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt, the film paints a complicated portrait of a community still recovering. There are powerful scenes in which an artist paints over Sandusky in a Penn State mural, adds a halo to Paterno’s portrait… and then takes it off as more sad news breaks. There is another sequence where a man protests by standing near the stadium’s Paterno statue with a sign calling the coach an enabler, and the angry reaction it elicits from loyal fans who drove miles to pay homage to their hero is all you need to know about the town’s torn soul.
“What I tried to do is give the audience the puzzle I’ve been working with for 18 months, and turn it around in your head and maybe conclude the same things I did – and maybe different things,” Bar-Lev said after an early screening. In fact, the early reactions to the film were all across the board. Some viewers concluded that Paterno and his superiors were complicit and that our universal obsession with athletics blinded well-intentioned people. But one member of the audience, who identified himself as a relative of Penn State benefactors Louis and Mildred Lasch, walked away with a different impression. “I was very nervous coming into this documentary, but I want to applaud you because I think you did find the truth in what’s a very, very difficult thing,” he said.
The truth. I’m not even sure Bar-Lev would agree that he’s found it. But Happy Valley is a powerful portrait of a wounded community that might not be so different from your own.
The director chatted with EW about his film:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What Joe Paterno represented to thousands of people in Pennsylvania and around the country was beyond any other sports coach, perhaps since Bear Bryant, and–
AMIR BAR-LEV: And even Bear Bryant wasn’t really seen as a moral figure.
Right, Joe Pa was a saint. He gave money to the university and the library, and his players graduated. He was iconic in very glowing ways, and the Jerry Sandusky scandal shook people’s faith in something they considered extremely special.
Among the many compelling parts of this story for me, I think Jerry Sandusky’s sociopathic behavior is probably the least compelling. Because as you said, Paterno was a guy who was considered a saint, who by his own admission, wishes he had done more about what he did know [about Sandusky]. So whenever anybody who is called a saint by the rest of us is involved in a story like this, I think it causes all of us to ask pretty interesting and pretty universal questions about sanctification and morality. That’s what interested me about this story, so that’s where we directed our inquiry into this question of sanctification. And also the question of what happens to a community when the rest of the world says it has a culture problem. Those were the words that Louis Freeh used in his report about what went wrong with Jerry Sandusky: that there was a culture problem. That’s a really interesting thing. Especially in a place that was considered to be a paragon of American virtues. That was why we called the film Happy Valley and didn’t call it Paterno or Sandusky, because we were really interested in what happens to an identity when the outside world is blaming it for something that happens in its midst.
By the time you arrived at Penn State, the community had already been blanketed with media. What happens when you arrive with a camera and questions, saying you’re planning a documentary?
The reception was suspicious. They had been picked apart by the media just before we started our film. And I’m pretty excited and pleased with the access that we garnered. It didn’t come easy. We kind of worked our way up from the man on the street to a lot of the key players. We also have some surprising voices that are not bold-faced names but people who speak very articulately about their take on what happened here. And they’re not in agreement with one another. We really tried to make a film that provides a prism of different perspectives.
I assume you started with certain preconceptions. But what surprised you once you began filming? Or what was reinforced?
The last three or four movies I’ve made have been about topics that are torn from the headlines, and I try and question my own preconceived notions. I find that [the documentary] usually starts as a kind of window into another culture that’s not my own and ends up being a mirror. The failings that you find in other people, you end up realizing are pretty universal. Not across the board, but in this particular case, I would venture the interest in this story from the rest of us, from the outside world, was less in Sandusky and more in these moral questions about the people around him. Because everyone of us has some kind of peripheral knowledge that crimes are being committed in our own neighborhoods. And few of us don a cape and go out and pull kittens out of trees, right? So that’s what I was interested in, this sort of, “What are the boundaries for myself about what we owe each other?” And the answers that I found I did find myself surprised and challenged by them, and I think people are going to watch the movie and come away with different answers to those questions than I did.
In the movie, there’s also the unholy matrimony between higher education and multimillion-dollar sports programs. Before Paterno went to Penn State, it was kind of a cow-college with no real reputation. He became so essential in building the name of that university.
Yeah, that’s the background and the ground from which this sprung. And I would also say that there’s a unholy matrimony between the things that we as a culture used to do, that we as a country used to do a lot more collectively, that we no longer do. Like, college education. A place like Penn State, in the last two years, has seen its endowment, the money it gets from taxes, I think, halved, down to 50 percent of what it used to be. Similarly, places like the Second Mile, Sandusky’s charity, filled in the gaps where more collective enterprises used to take care of our needier. Maybe I’m getting on a high horse, but I think there is story here about what happens when we kind of make ourselves dependent on the noblesse oblige, you know, even when it’s well intended. This is a story about what happens in fighting for the scraps, in terms of college education and in terms of taking care of our needier.
Even as the documentary premieres, the beat goes on at Penn State, which rebounded on the football field with a new coach, Bill O’Brien. But he just left to join the NFL, and the Lions have a new coach. Have you been following that and is that something you’re interested in at all?
I was pretty surprised that O’Brien left. But I’m pretty surprised by the pedestal that we put coaches – any coach – up on. It’s a little bit sanctimonious for a culture that elevates people left and right onto these pedestals and point the finger at Penn State as if Penn State is anomalous at all. I think it’s asking for trouble when you do that.
I live in eastern Pennsylvania, where there’s plenty of Nittany Lions flags still waving. The region is still wrestling with what happened and trying to recover.
I ask myself constantly – you know, Joe Paterno was not a hero of mine – but like anybody, I have heroes. So I kind of try to imagine what this would do to me with my heroes. And I hope that the film provokes people to ask themselves questions about their own pantheon of saints and heroes and villains. The reason it’s an interesting story is because it’s a universal story.