Happy Valley screens this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center
Happy Valley screens this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center

Happy Valley, a searching documentary about the child sex-abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University, concludes with a scene of Matt Sandusky, the grown adoptive son of convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky, constructing a basement rec room in his home as his own small children romp around nearby. Matt plays only a small part in the complex story, but his sad situation epitomizes a movie that looks past his father’s crimes and the cover-up by Penn State officials to ponder the culture that permitted them. In June 2012, as Jerry was standing trial for having sexually assaulted ten boys over the course of 15 years, Matt came forward to announce that he too had been a victim of his father’s abuse. Loyalty to his adoptive family inhibited him for years, Matt explains to director Amir Bar-Lev (My Kid Could Paint That, The Tillman Story), and now that he’s broken his silence, his mother and siblings will have nothing to do with him. In the Sandusky household, at Penn State, and in the Happy Valley region surrounding it, a strong sense of community can be a double-edged sword.

The scandal struck at the heart of Penn State’s football program, where Jerry Sandusky had been an assistant coach from 1969 to 1999 under the revered head coach Joe Paterno. The mania for NCAA college football in Happy Valley is so severe that, as Matt describes it, Paterno was viewed as God and Jerry Sandusky as his only begotten son. Sandusky was respected as a community leader as well, having founded the nonprofit organization the Second Mile to help underprivileged children. Matt was one of those children, and Bar-Lev shows him driving by the large rural house where he lived in squalor before Jerry Sandusky rescued and eventually adopted him. But when Jerry was indicted in November 2011, his civic-mindedness took on a more sinister aspect: through the Second Mile, he had harvested young boys for private sexual encounters, which typically progressed from “horsing around” to groping to oral and anal rape.

When Sandusky’s indictment was handed down, the community recoiled and the retired coach was vilified. But as Bar-Lev details in the movie, the football faithful at Penn State stuck by Paterno, despite the fact that he and three other administrators—athletic director Tim Curley, vice president Gary Schultz, and college president Graham Spanier—were accused of shielding Sandusky. In February 2001, a graduate assistant named Mike McQueary had walked in on Sandusky as he appeared to be raping a boy in the men’s shower room of the university football building. McQueary reported this to Paterno, who reported it to his boss, Curley, but neither Paterno or Curley, nor Schultz or Spanier, who had also been advised of the incident, called the police.. Paterno had fulfilled his legal obligation by notifying his superior, but for a man regarded far and wide as a “beacon of integrity” (as one sportscaster puts it), this was hardly sufficient. Paterno biographer Joe Posnanski remembers visiting the coach shortly before his death in January 2012 and Paterno telling him, “I wish I had done more.”

“This is not a Penn State issue, this is not a Joe Paterno issue,” Paterno’s son Jay tells Bar-Lev. “This is a Jerry Sandusky issue.” Yet the community portrayed in Happy Valley is so dependent on college football—not just economically but emotionally and even spiritually—that Paterno’s legend must be protected at all costs. Bar-Lev includes footage of the massive protests that followed after the university’s board of directors fired Paterno on November 9, 2011, with students toppling signposts, threatening journalists, and overturning a TV news van. The next weekend, when Penn State plays Nebraska and both teams converge on the gridiron to honor the victims with a moment of silent prayer, the fans get bored immediately and start whooping it up before the players can return to their feet. “All right, this is great and all,” carps Tyler Estright, a student interviewed later in his memorabilia-bedecked dorm room, “but stop praying in the middle of the field, get off your knees, stop holding the hand of the Nebraska guy, get on your own side, and let’s go play football!”

The support for Paterno is understandable if not defensible: around Happy Valley he was known as a man of high character who stressed academic performance and whose Nittany Lions maintained the second-highest graduation rate (85 percent) of any school in the Big Ten Conference. He famously turned down a seven-figure offer from the New England Patriots to stay at the university, and he and his wife, Suzanne, donated $4 million to the construction of a campus library. But in July 2012, six months after his death from lung cancer, the university released a report, assembled by the law firm of former FBI director Louis Freeh, arguing that Paterno and the others had “empowered” Sandusky to continue his abuse. In Paterno’s case, the Freeh report cited two fairly ambiguous e-mails from Curley to Schultz and Spanier: the first, from May 1998, was interpreted to mean that Curley and Paterno knew about a previous complaint involving Sandusky, whereas the second, sent in February 2011 after McQueary reported the shower incident, was interpreted to mean that Paterno had quashed a plan to turn Sandusky in to the authorities.

Bar-Lev captures the raw emotion generated by the Freeh report in a sequence shot outside Beaver Stadium, as an elderly man poses beside a bronze statue of Paterno, holding a sign that reads paterno the coverup artist! paterno the liar! paterno the pedophile enabler! Fans happen by, stare in open-mouthed horror, and abuse him verbally; one guy tears the sign out of his hand. Overhead a plane flies by pulling a banner that reads take down the statue or we will! Eventually the statue is removed, and a prominent mural on College Avenue, showing the late coach among other university notables, is altered to obscure the halo that was painted over his head when he died. (“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” the artist tells Bar-Lev.) Suzanne Paterno is furious that the board fired her husband with a phone call and took down his statue without notifying her in advance. Interviewed by Bar-Lev, she offers her own explanation for what’s happening: “Society likes to destroy what they think is better than they are.”

The fans’ anguish only intensified in July 2012, when the NCAA, responding to the Freeh report, handed down a staggering list of sanctions against Penn State that were designed, in the words of president Mark Emmert, “to make sure the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people.” Among other things, Penn State was fined $60 million, prohibited from competing in bowl games for four years, and stripped of all its wins from 1998, when Paterno allegedly turned a blind eye to Sandusky’s abuse, through 2011. Bar-Lev trains his camera on students at Penn State as they sit in a TV room watching Emmert’s announcement; they gasp, cry, and bury their faces in their hands, making you wonder if they were this distraught when they learned about little boys being serially raped by a powerful coach.

Naturally a backlash followed. The Paterno family commissioned its own reports, one by former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh that attacked the Freeh report and another by former FBI profiler James T. Clemente that refocused attention on Sandusky’s cunning. “His report has given us all, sort of, absolution that we never—knew—anything,” Suzanne Paterno tells Bar-Lev. A film professor at Penn State characterizes the NCAA sanctions as a “shaming spectacle that allows the culture to move on,” and a local historian calls them an attempt to smear an entire community. Many fans blame the media for tarring Paterno; when the new season commences, one woman yells at a cameraman, “Go home, ESPN! We don’t want you!” This may be the first time those words have ever been uttered in a college town. But as one observer notes, Bill O’Brien, the new head coach, is already getting the messianic treatment that Paterno enjoyed. A sweatshirt stocked at a local memorabilia store exhorts people to “Billieve.”

Happy Valley presents a fair and rounded view of the Sandusky affair, yet Bar-Lev maintains a healthy degree of skepticism for those who want to share in Penn State’s glory but quarantine its shame. Back in the day, Paterno was hailed for his decision to remove players’ names from the backs of their jerseys, leaving only their numbers; symbolically, this spoke to his conviction that no individual is more important than the team, the school, the community. After the NCAA sanctions, however, his policy was reversed, and the players were identified by name. Perhaps the school was merely bowing to convention, or to the egoism of its players, eager to individualize themselves on television. On another level, though, the decision represents a response to the scandal and what it revealed—that a team, a school, or a community can also be a convenient place to hide.