by Nina Metz
11/29/2014 CHICAGO TRIBUNE
“College football is something special. It really is. Hopefully we won’t lose sight of that. Or mess it up.” Prescient words, spoken by Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno in an old TV interview.
You have to wonder what he was alluding to — maybe nothing specifically. The interview was taped long beforethe university (and Paterno himself, who died in 2012) came under fire in the wake of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s arrest and conviction (45 counts in all) for sexually abusing young boys.
The clip is featured in the documentary “Happy Valley” from filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, who isn’t looking to uncover new facts so much as capture the mood of the town itself — how those on and off campus responded when it became clear that Paterno acted less than proactively when concerns about Sandusky — a man whose reputation was tied largely to his association with Paterno — began to surface.The film, which debuted earlier this year at Sundance, comes to the Siskel Film Center this week (with a post-show discussion Wednesday moderated by Dan Bernstein, radio host at 670 The Score), and it wades into the dark waters that enveloped all those invested in Penn State’s football program, including the fans who pushed back
hard when the university fired Paterno.
“I’m extremely interested in symbols,” Bar-Lev told me. “I made a film about Pat Tillman (2010’s “The Tillman Story,” about the former NFL player and Army Ranger killed by friendly fire) and another about Marla Olmstead (2007’s “My Kid Could Paint That,” about the preschool art prodigy who may or may not have been a fraud) —those films are about the moment where real life collides with our symbolic life.
“And I felt immediately, especially in the role of Joe Paterno, that there was this same sort of collision at work at Penn State.”
Bar-Lev interviews many key figures, including Matt Sandusky, Sandusky’s adopted son who initially stood by his father, only to come forward once the trial began and disclose the sexual abuse inflicted on him as well.
Andrew Shubin is an attorney in the State College, Pa., area who represented many of the victims, and he offers perhaps the calmest assessment of the town’s mindset, of which he is quietly critical. He is measured and clearheaded, and his words are blunt.
The mood, as he reads it, is this: “They got Sandusky, now let’s move on. The justice system has punished the person responsible and that’s enough. The wholesomeness of Penn State football and those values survive this. … Let’s move on. Time for football.”
Bar-Lev digs up another old television interview with Paterno, who notes that being known as a “beacon of integrity is kind of scary.” That’s a complicated sentiment. The feelings behind it — or how it might have led him to look away from Sandusky’s crimes — are never acknowledged by his family members (including his widow and two of his sons) when Bar-Lev talks to them.
The Paternos’ distress is palpable, but the outrage seems misplaced. The segments with Sue Paterno reminded me of a “60 Minutes” interview from a few years back with Ruth Madoff, wife of convicted Ponzi scheme architect Bernie Madoff. In both women you sense a singular focus on, and deep mourning for, this beautiful life that has imploded.
“It’s so funny,” Bar-Lev told me. “I just had lunch with somebody who had a totally different read on (Sue Paterno). He felt that she was the victim in this story and had so much nobility. That’s something I really love about these films, that people take them in very different ways.”
What’s striking is the lack of self-reflection among Penn State and Paterno defenders — on camera at least. We didn’t do these crimes, they state over and over again. Don’t accuse us of being callous or complicit. We are being unfairly maligned.
Did this community indirectly create an environment that allowed the abuse to happen? Maybe. Maybe not. It’s
worth asking, though.
Editing plays a big role in how a documentary portrays its subjects, and I asked Bar-Lev if any moments of introspection were expressed during these interviews and he simply chose not to include them in the film.
“Of course not,” he said. “That wouldn’t be fair.” So why does he think that element was absent from his conversations?
“I think these crimes make people incredibly uncomfortable. I think they make people much more uncomfortable than a murder might, even.”
It’s a curious thing to watch the film right now, with a renewed focus on Bill Cosby rape allegations in the news. The parallels to Sandusky — of a powerful, beloved father figure using his position to exploit victims — are uncanny.
“It is hard to believe that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist because the belief doesn’t just indict Cosby, it indicts us,” Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote last week on theatlantic.com. “It destroys our ability to lean on icons for our morality.” You sensed this same undercurrent from the people of State College when Paterno was let go from the university.
“I worry sometimes,” Bar-Lev told me, “about people walking away from this film with the conclusion that football is a lousy sport, or that sports are to blame. But I think sports are not the only place where we distract ourselves with spectacle. I would hate for the film to be seen only as an indictment of football.”
That’s funny, I said, because I had just read something by writer Matt Singer on screencrush.com that underscores this point: “The last time Christopher Nolan released a movie, film critics got death threats.” For some moviegoers, Nolan is a symbol of something, whatever that is. And to criticize one of his movies is to criticize anyone who reveres or identifies with that symbol. It’s not a rational response, but a very human one.
I don’t think the Paternos come off well in “Happy Valley” (which is distributed by the locally based Music Box
Films) but apparently the Paternos have no issue with it. “I’m hesitant to put words in their mouths,” said Bar-Lev,
“but I sensed that they felt that we had succeeded in representing them fairly.”
There are others who feel quite the opposite, including talk radio host John Ziegler (salon.com describes him as a “Penn State ‘truther'”) who believes Sandusky is innocent and recently posted a 34-minute video commentary on YouTube that includes (according to the YouTube description) “exclusive clips” from “Happy Valley” — several minutes’ worth, used without permission of the filmmaker or rights holders.
“We of course will take whatever measures we have to to protect the film being unlawfully released,” Bar-Lev said when I emailed him about it.