Late in Amir Bar-Lev's harrowing and deeply fair documentary Happy Valley, which tracks the Jerry Sandusky tragedy at Penn State and its craterous aftermath, attorney Andrew Shubin, who represented several of Sandusky's victims, says:
There's a uniformity of thought that wouldn't exist in a place where football was not valued the way that it is here ... Jerry Sandusky got every benefit of the doubt, and I think in another place, in another city, or in another area where football didn't get the pass that it got here, I don't think that would have been done. I have to think people would have been much more discriminating, and much more suspicious.
That's the question, isn't it? The horror of Sandusky was so overwhelming that, in the days and months afterward, anyone who had ever even met him, let alone worked with him for decades, was called into suspicion. There were accusations of coverups, and enabling, and protection; people were fired and even imprisoned, all based on that central question: How could they have not known? Sandusky wasn't just a part of the Happy Valley community; he was one of its patron saints. In the film, Matt Sandusky—his adopted son, who ultimately joined the prosecution after claiming he'd been abused himself—compares being associated with Jerry pre-scandal to being a made man. Matt went from being a destitute, wayward kid to proudly wearing Penn State gear around town and standing on the sidelines during games. Taking the name Sandusky meant more than just joining a family: It meant power.
Bar-Lev depicts Happy Valley as a place obsessed with football to a degree that's unquestionably unhealthy. In one scene outside Joe Paterno's home at the height of the scandal, Joe's son Scott asks the crowd cheering for JoePa to stop and take a moment of silence for the victims; the crowd stops for barely a half a second before beginning to chant, "Scott Pa-ter-no! CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP!" like he'd just scored a touchdown. A fratty college student named Tyler Estright comes across as particularly callous, as if Sandusky's crimes were an inconvenience that's getting in the way of what was supposed to be a Penn State Rose Bowl run ... his Penn State Rose Bowl run. The immediate obsession with Bill O'Brien, Paterno's replacement—with many fans painting "BILLIEVE" across their chest for the team's first game back—revealed the community's desperate need for something, anything to rally around. Football came first at Penn State, and in many cases, nothing came second.
You can take this as an indictment of Happy Valley if you want, but Bar-Lev doesn't see it that way, at least not specifically. There's a warmness to his approach: For all its delusions and conflicts, this is still a community, one fighting to keep itself together. What this film is, as Bar-Lev convincingly explains it, is an indictment of everywhere. That football is more powerful in small college towns—particularly small college towns as walled off from the rest of the world as this one—is hardly news, and definitely not unique to Penn State. (Get FSU Twitter riled up about Jameis Winston, I dare you.) Bar-Lev quietly argues that when we grasp onto these bonds as a community, and attach them to these ultimately meaningless rituals, traditions, and symbols, you leave yourself open to exploitation ... and ruin, once it's revealed how quickly it can all crumble.
Jerry Sandusky used Happy Valley; his knowledge of its weak spots, where he could use his power and adoration to his advantage, allowed him to be a predator in plain sight. Bar-Lev uses some rarely seen archival footage of Sandusky being profiled by local (and national) media as some sort of saint—often while sitting next to a visibly uncomfortable Joe Paterno, who plainly didn't like him—or at least a selfless public servant who just happened to coach football, but mostly wanted to save all of the region's lost children. He was revered as a public hero because this is how Happy Valley wanted to see itself: As the sort of altruistic place where the deified were deified for the right reasons. You can blame everyone involved for this, but what community doesn't want to be seen that way? What community doesn't have its local heroes? What community doesn't want something to believe in?
To blame Happy Valley for fostering an environment where Jerry Sandusky could thrive, could have the freedom and power to destroy the lives of the innocent for his own sadistic end, is to blame every community. The reason Happy Valley didn't think Sandusky was a child molester is ... who thinks anyone is a child molester? It's nearly impossible to wrap one's head around. These people obviously made mistakes and had their priorities in the wrong place without realizing it, but this only makes them like every other person in the world. Bar-Lev doesn't let Happy Valley, or Penn State, or the members of the Paterno family—most of whom give thorough interviews here, including Joe's widow Sue—off the hook at all, but he doesn't see them as uniquely deluded. This is just what we do. "It's a conjuror's trick," a professor says late in the film. "We all find this one thing to rally around and stare at, while the rest of the world goes on while we're not looking." Jerry Sandusky was the virus. Was there a community anywhere that could have survived him?
The film is impressively empathetic to all sides—this is not a muckraking stomp of outrage, but a gentle display of profound, overwhelming sadness—but Happy Valley (out tomorrow in theaters and on demand) always ends up coming back to Matt Sandusky. He speaks frankly and powerfully to Bar-Lev: about meeting Jerry, about how he stuck with the Sandusky family through the allegations, about how hearing testimony on the trial's first day from another victim allowed him to finally come to terms with what had happened to him and what Jerry had done. Every second Matt is onscreen, all the debates, all the arguments, all the media reports, all the protests, all the screaming ... it all just disappears with a snap: This story is about him and the victims, not the rest of us.
Matt is now raising a family of his own, struggling with the terrors of his past but still bravely moving forward, and speaking out. The final title card typifies the film's complexity and power: Matt and his family still live in Happy Valley. Where else would he go? This is his community. This is his home.
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