The Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University came to light during a period when media reportage of child sexual abuse seemed to reach some kind of freakish zenith -- in addition to Penn State, there were the ongoing revelations regarding the Catholic Church, the crimes of Earl Bradley in Delaware, and the atrocities that came to light in the wake of Jimmy Savile’s death. These kinds of depravities are horrific, and cause one to ask how they could have continued unfettered for so many years -- or in some instances, for decades.
A few compelling documentaries have been made about these criminal cases, including Amy Berg's Deliver Us From Evil (2006) and Alex Gibney's Mea Maxima Culpa (2012), but the subject, particularly the aspect of it that relates to public denial, feels curiously and disappointingly underserved by nonfiction film (likely to protect the victims). For that reason, the arrival of Amir Bar-Lev's documentary Happy Valley, an examination of the Sandusky case and the events that followed, is welcome news. Unfortunately, though, the picture feels a bit hollow and plays it too safe: Bar-Lev's technique is too amateurish in some respects to really deliver, and he is much too conservative in his assessment of the events that transpired.
Bar-Lev emphasizes the denial aspect of the abuse, which was the right choice for this subject. The Penn State crimes -- like the other cases -- are perplexing not in the sense that one should be surprised at a human being's ability to commit such disgusting acts, but because they suggest a vast naiveté on the part of the general public, as well as a complicity among those who sensed what was happening and chose to turn their backs and allow the abuse to continue. These people, of course, were functioning as enablers of the most ghastly behavior. In the case of Sandusky, the Freeh Report (which has been rejected by the family of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno) stated that the blame for this inaction fell on the shoulders of several Penn State administrators, both inside and outside of the athletic department -- some of whom knew that Sandusky had fondled and raped young boys in the showers, yet failed to intervene. The late Paterno indicated that he reported news of Sandusky's conduct to his superiors, but this weak excuse only causes one to wonder why he didn't do more.
This particular case is unusual because it took place in the world of college athletics, where coaches are often regarded as something close to gods: omniscient, infallible, and not to be questioned. Bar-Lev thoroughly gets this, and his film delivers a devastating blow to that sort of deification in its first third: The documentary pulls us inside the football-obsessed community surrounding Penn State and explores how fans were blinded to the possibilities of misconduct -- even to the point of allowing Sandusky to run a camp for underprivileged youth, which apparently gave him unchecked access to adolescent boys.
This narrative setup is generally satisfactory. However, the film stumbles when it examines the denials of the Paterno family and others. Although the facts of collaboration and complicity documented by the Freeh Report are fairly clear-cut, the movie introduces a maelstrom of ambiguities that leave us with very little sense of what to believe. In fact, Happy Valley almost starts to feel like an unintended apologia for Joe Paterno; less astute viewers might even begin to believe the claims of total ignorance by Penn State officials. It wasn't a mistake to include on-camera denials, but we desperately need enough objective distance to see the machinations behind these claims -- the sort of distance that Joe Berlinger, for instance, often gives us in his films.
There is another unusual problem with this documentary. Media reports on abuse cases like this have a devastating, sickening quality; for those sensitive to the welfare of children and adolescents, they are nearly impossible to follow. Bar-Lev certainly didn’t have to be exploitative, but if he's dealing with a subject like child sexual abuse, he needed to figure out a way to get close enough to the subject to palpably disturb and upset his audience. This isn’t an easy task: The underage victims cannot legally be placed on camera, and the idea of filming them while obscuring their identities feels a bit trite and dated. But directors such as Gibney and Berg have found clever ways around this, and as a result, their work has a staggering power that leaves us stunned by the magnitude of the horror that transpired. Happy Valley, on the other hand, feels cool and detached, and is very easy to sit through -- not a good sign for a movie that explores these issues.
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