Amir Bar-Lev has become one of documentary filmmaking’s best storytellers, able to find illuminating angles and compelling narratives even in recent news items that have already been well-covered. Like his 2010 doc The Tillman Story—which considered the way the friendly-fire death of NFL-star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman was spun to score political points—Bar-Lev’s new film Happy Valley is about how personal biases affect the ways people react to a situation that seems pretty cut-and-dried. For Happy Valley, Bar-Lev visited Penn State University while the institution was still reeling from the arrest of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on charges that he sexually abused young boys. Bar-Lev follows the story as it unfolds, looking beyond the crime to ask how the students and alumni could still rally behind their embattled football program after word began to come out that beloved, venerable Coach Joe Paterno may have known what Sandusky was doing.
Bar-Lev doesn’t use Happy Valley to re-try the Sandusky case, or stir fresh outrage over Paterno. The documentary takes the facts at face value, and gives a voice to some of Sandusky’s victims, as well as to some of the Penn State employees who tried to warn the administration about him. As for Paterno, Bar-Lev takes a nuanced view, looking back at the coach’s accomplishments as a civic leader and a symbol of athletic excellence, and balancing them against the accusation that he kept his mouth shut about his longtime defensive coordinator either because he didn’t want to gum up the massive machine that is a Division I college football program, or because he literally didn’t understand what “molestation” means.
Happy Valley is more interested in Paterno as emblematic of Penn State fans’ evolving feelings about the scandal. When the news first broke, the campus solemnly expressed sympathy for the victims and eagerly excoriated Sandusky, letting him be the creepy scapegoat for everything that happened. But as the media began digging into Paterno’s complicity, and as it became increasingly likely that Paterno would be forced out of his job and that the football program would be formally sanctioned, the mood shifted from apologetic to despairing to defiant. (The documentary traces this progression in part by following the changes made to a local mural, whose artist first painted out Sandusky, then painted a halo over Paterno’s head, then later painted that out, too.) Bar-Lev explores that enduring mindset of “my team, right or wrong,” which lately has led to ugly confrontations between Washington Redskins fans and Native American protestors, and between Florida State diehards and members of the press reporting on possible criminal activity by some its football players.
Bar-Lev doesn’t hold Penn State fans in contempt any more than he vilifies Paterno. He lets them have their say, and what they say, while short-sighted, isn’t entirely unreasonable. One complains about how the whole university has been smeared, including people who don’t even care about football. Another says he’s tired of having to say, “I feel bad about the victims,” every time he mentions Penn State—as though anyone wouldn’t feel bad. Throughout this whole nightmarish experience, Penn State stalwarts kept hoping they’d made enough conciliatory gestures to be allowed to get on with the usual business of raucous Saturday game days. And over and over, they were told they’d have to keep repenting, until eventually they decided that if nothing was ever going to be good enough, they’d just ignore their critics entirely.
For the most part, Happy Valley doesn’t do anything unusually sophisticated with the documentary form. Bar-Lev relies on interviews, archives, and the printed word to piece together a story that partly happened before he arrived with his cameras. But in his original footage, Bar-Lev does a fine job of depicting Penn State and its community as isolated, often via subtle visual cues, like a shot of the police spray-painting the pavement to partition off the national news crews in town to report on the scandal. And he captures some dramatic moments, such as the reaction of Penn State fans who came by to take pictures of a later-removed Joe Paterno statue, and were incensed to find a protestor blocking their view.
Happy Valley’s subject matter is difficult, but not Bar-Lev’s approach, which unfolds like an outstanding piece of long-form magazine reportage, taking into account history, culture, and the personalities of multiple major characters. Like The Tillman Story and 2007’s My Kid Could Paint That, Happy Valley astutely exposes how people are inclined to smooth out complicated situations into easily understood narratives, with clear heroes, villains, and endpoints. But Happy Valley is especially attuned to the way a mob mentality fosters the us-against-them attitude that influences opinions. As one Penn State fan says, when describing the mania of football Saturday, “100,000 people doing the same thing seems less dumb.”