Joe Paterno’s tenure at Penn State included 24 bowl wins and 409 total regular season wins before the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal saw “JoePa” lose 111 regular season and six bowl wins vacated by the NCAA.
Paterno was many things to the community of Penn State. He was a legendary coach, benefactor and father figure. He was also at the very least aware of Sandusky’s predation on young boys and reportedly said himself he wished he had done more.
Ultimately, Paterno and his legacy at Penn State was complicated, forged by success and morality, but ruined in the wake of Sandusky’s deplorable actions.
The story, retold at Sundance by the sports documentary “Happy Valley,” takes the viewer back to the first time the story broke in 2011, complete with a mix of emotions that leaves the stomach in knots for the entirety of the 100-minute film.
Director Amir Bar-Lev immerses the audience in life at State College, Penn., as the scandal unfolds. He juxtaposes the picturesque town of rolling green hills and football tradition with Penn State’s athletic braintrust’s failure to expose Sandusky and the resulting damage of an apathetic athletic department.
The film is built around the central character of Matt Sandusky, Jerry’s adopted son who also was a victim. There also are appearances from several Paterno family members and sports journalist Joe Posnanski, who literally wrote the book on JoePa.
The narrative is less about Sandusky and more about a framing of American and sports culture, where distraction trumps all and serious issues are swept under the rug.
One of the most interesting aspects is watching ardent Penn State supporters, students and fans chanting “Joe Pa-Ter-No” repeatedly as the cameras roll, a difficult concept to grasp for outside observers, but a common sentiment for Happy Valley residents who projected hope, love and success on a football team and coach.
Bar-Lev, a veteran of Sundance who also directed “The Tillman Story” in 2010, gets down to the grittiness at the epicenter of Penn State support, continuing a story that’s still complicated, messy and incomplete two years later, long after Sandusky was put behind bars.
The incredible storytelling offers little sense of closure. Every shot of cheering fans and images of Sandusky being hauled away in handcuffs calls attention to the cost of college football and its comfortable distraction.
Between Paterno, Sandusky’s victims and the community of State College, Bar-Lev’s point comes across loud and clear.
Even amid the winningest college coach of all-time, no one really won anything at all.