Five Reasons Why the ‘Happy Valley’ Documentary Sucks
I hoped I could just ignore it.
Amir Bar-Lev’s “Happy Valley” documentary, which attempts to chronicle the story of the Sandusky scandal through the lens of the Penn State community, was released on the three-year anniversary of the initial events last November with moderate fanfare. It debuted at Sundance, garnered a few national reviews, and faded back into the mountain of Sandusky retrospectives that exist in a muddled space. Few without a Penn State connection were willing to pay to stream it on iTunes, and I doubt it had much of an impact on the casual observer.
That is, until now. “Happy Valley” debuted on Netflix last week, available to stream on demand to the service’s more than 50-million subscribers (Netflix now has only slightly fewer subscribers than cable television in the United States). As I write this, it is already one of Netflix’s most popular selections, coming in just behind new episodes of Orange is the New Black and Scandal. In a matter of a week, “Happy Valley” has undoubtedly become the most-consumed piece of media in the country on the Penn State situation since November 2011, and its impact on the national narrative is unquestionably large.
There’s just one problem: It’s a fatally flawed documentary that fails to show any shades of gray in some parts and completely misses the mark in others. The fact that it is likely the only message most people will consume about Penn State since 2011 makes me want to put a fist through a wall. Predictably, the only two critics of the movie I’ve seen so far are Jay Paterno (sort of) and John Ziegler, who ripped it apart in two videos of the actual movie with his running commentary (the producers of “Happy Valley” had YouTube remove them, but Ziegler appealed and won). It has an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the few critics seem to be mostly Olbermann-types upset that it didn’t overtly damn Paterno.
The only thing this documentary does well is present a somewhat coherent timeline of the events as they unfolded from November 2011 until fall 2012, meaning it’s no more valuable than a Youtube search. Honestly, I could write a thesis paper about everything wrong with “Happy Valley.” I’ll admit that those of us who lived through this nightmare can be overly pedantic sometimes, and we all have our own biases — but I’ll leave it to these five huge misses in a documentary that is as emotionally stirring as it is journalistically dishonest.
1. The film fails to explore, or even mention, any of the ambiguity surrounding the key facts of the case.
I understand the directors didn’t set out to produce an investigatory film, which is perfectly fine. However, it is impossible to make a fair film about the Sandusky scandal without at least addressing the uncertainty that exists around many of the key case facts. The fact that most Penn Staters don’t believe there was an institutional coverup — and the reasonable facts that support that conclusion — is the most important component to understanding our collective reaction. “Happy Valley” fails to address this part of the story almost completely, save for a few lines from members of the Paterno family which can easily be written off by a national audience as biased.
I’ve written it before — all of what the average disconnected observer knows about the Sandusky scandal can be written on the back of an index card. McQueary told Paterno a boy was being anally raped in the shower, and Paterno covered it up for a decade instead of going to the police; that’s the story. Case closed. Given the media coverage since November 2011 greased by Penn State’s pitiful institutional response to the whole thing, it is understandable why most people feel this way. Taking those facts at face value, it is understandable why the most used adjective in the Netflix review section is “disturbing,” used to characterize our fanbase’s continued support of football and the Paterno legacy. Those who are completely certain that Joe Paterno covered up child sexual abuse (most people who watch this documentary, I imagine) would think Penn Staters are the most controverted bastards alive after watching “Happy Valley.”
I won’t rehash Paterno’s or Penn State’s case for innocence to this audience. I’ve already done so here. I also acknowledge that different people can interpret the facts different ways, although I tend to believe that any reasonable, open-minded person who is actually interested in the details of what happened at Penn State would acknowledge that there is, at minimum, significant flaws in the Freeh report’s coverup theory. But the problem isn’t that “Happy Valley” didn’t take a side on the issue — it’s that the facts themselves are hardly addressed at all. The film is full of raw reactions to the all the key events that happened during and after 2011. Little time is dedicated to exploring theories of what happened during those critical weeks after the 2001 incident and beyond — the details of which are the most important part to truly understanding most Penn Staters’ reactions to it all. The closest we get to actually addressing the events that led up to the November 2011 explosion is a bit from biographer Joe Posnanski who called the Freeh report conclusions “astonishing.”
For a film that hoped to tell the story of the Sandusky scandal through the lens of the Penn State community, it failed completely at actually providing the context for the crescendo. Without understanding the ambiguity surrounding who knew what and when they knew it, it’s impossible to explain the community’s reaction. Believe it or not, a large swatch of the national audience does not even remotely doubt the existence of a child rape coverup at Penn State. Most of that same national audience hasn’t bothered to read anything about the situation since the Freeh report came out in 2012. For “Happy Valley” to allow that understandable ignorance go unchecked is irresponsible. Furthermore, the film makes us all seem like a bunch of insensitive cultists. Considerable time is given to old footage of the riots after Paterno’s firing. The least we could ask for is a few minutes with Bob Costas. Play the Frank Fina clip. Any background information is more substantive than what this documentary ended up with, which is to say, none at all.
2. The film only included interview clips from one student, who came off as crazy and isn’t at all representative of what most (or really, any other) students were feeling.
The “Happy Valley” producers evidently determined they only needed to include interview footage from one student who lived through this disaster, and boy, did they find what they were looking for. Sitting in his bed, covered with Penn State sheets, in front of a wall covered with at least a half dozen Joe Paterno photographs, a student (whose credentials are never revealed) spouts off time and time again about how none of this is really a big deal and, well, why the fuck don’t we focus on football instead and forget about all of this? Here are some of the student’s most irresponsible quotes (with my comments following):
- “I tried to get myself excited for the Nebraska game. There was supposed to be a pep rally that Friday, but they decided to do this vigil instead. A lot of people were really emotional about it, but this seems so fake to me. This is a Friday night before a football game — we should be getting ready to support the team. That’s what we do here in Happy Valley. We watch football on Saturdays and that’s our pastime.” (The vigil, of course, referring to the one for child sexual abuse victims which most of the student body attended — an hour that remains one of the most emotional of my life. There wasn’t a dry eye on the entire lawn. Fake, I can assure you, it was not.)
- “And then we have a prayer in the middle of the field the next day. A lot of people don’t know this, but the man who led it was an assistant coach for Nebraska, and he’s like a radical christian leader. He wrote some very bad things about homosexuals. This guy is out there leading that prayer, and I don’t agree with anything this guy thinks — I think this guy’s ignorant. And then from pockets in the stadium, you hear people cheering. They kind of had the idea that I had — alright, this is great and all, 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!” (I don’t know much about the assistant coach’s alleged homophobia, and there is absolutely no chance this student did either at the time of this prayer. But what I can say for certain is this student’s comments are the first criticisms I’ve ever heard of an incredibly emotional moment. Again, there were very few dry eyes in the stadium. The applause was not because fans were pissed about the prayer or that the game hadn’t started — it was just a release during a long silence in an emotional stadium. This student is someone who professes to idolize Joe Paterno, a man who once said “if it’s just a question of winning and losing, football is a silly game.” To ignore the metaphors and emotions of the 2011 Nebraska game is preposterous and represents a fringe perspective.)
- “Taylor Martinez, Nebraska’s quarterback, was walking by, and I said ‘Martinez, the only way you’re leaving here is in a hearse because we’re going to destroy you!’ and then this kid behind me says ‘It’s not about that today!’ And I’m like, ‘It’s not about that today? I don’t care what happened. This is Penn State football and it’s always about that.’ ” (No explanation needed.)
- “That 2012 season was hard for me. I was just so disgusted with everything…” (the average viewer expects him to say that he’s disgusted by child sexual abuse but then…) “To see those guys come out of that tunnel with their names on the back of their jerseys just made me cringe.” (¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
The film ends with this student saying, “Happy Valley just became a sad place for me. I was just like, I gotta get out of here,” and shows the student walking into his apartment elevator with all of his things packed. We never do find out where he goes, and I suspect no one who was still watching the film at this point really cared.
Look, I fully understand that Penn State fans, collectively, haven’t been the most tactful about the whole thing. But for “Happy Valley” to only feature one student, and for that student to be crazy is completely irresponsible on behalf of the producers. The directors were clearly just letting this kid clown himself for hours — I can only imagine the footage that didn’t make the cut. There were 95,000+ current Penn State students in November 2011, including more than 40,000 in State College, but “Happy Valley” decided to pick the craziest one. One of the producers emailed me in 2012 and said he was hoping to make a documentary that “takes its reporting seriously.” Well, interviewing the least thoughtful student on campus and featuring him prominently throughout your movie is more sensationalism than anything else.
3. The film fails to disclose its subjects’ biases, and the interviewees most critical of the “Penn State culture” are presented without any sort of critical eye.
No one is completely impartial in situations like this, and that’s okay. The important thing, at least if you’re hoping to be journalistically serious, is to disclose these biases. Onward State, for instance, is a website produced entirely by Penn State students. This comes with its own inherent set of biases. The reader knows this going in and you can draw your own conclusions about what that means. To pretend that Penn State students, writing about a university that all of us love dearly, are completely impartial would be antiquated, View From Nowhere journalism that is as dishonest as anything in the media business. Let’s take a look at some of the central characters in Happy Valley and how the film addresses their predispositions.
Aside from the student, the local attorney is probably the most infuriating subject in the entire film. Here are some of his worst quotes (with my commentary):
- “Almost to a man, no one felt it was possible that Sandusky would be convicted and that [the victims] would be believed,” and (speaking as a Sandusky accuser pre-trial), “These people adore Paterno. They’ll never believe me. Because of the way people view the team, view football, view Paterno, there is a lot of fear.” (As soon as the Grand Jury presentment came out, there wasn’t even a discussion about Sandusky’s guilt — it was assumed that he was a pedophile by virtually everyone, in State College and nationally. These quotes contradict the first scene in the entire movie, where the crowd in Bellefonte erupts in cheers after the guilty verdict is read. If anyone thought Sandusky was innocent at the time, I certainly didn’t hear anyone say it.)
- “There’s a loyalty to this university — an authentic, genuine, deep, love for this town. But there is also sort of a uniformity in thought that wouldn’t exist in a place where football was not valued in a way that it is here. When I think about the analogy, I think about nationalism almost. The way people may feel about a country. Jerry Sandusky got every benefit of the doubt, and I think in another place and in another city or another place where football got the pass that it got here, I don’t think it would have been done. I have to believe people would have been much more discriminatory and much more ambitious.”
- “From my perspective, the focus of Paterno as victim and football as victim is really a lost opportunity for this community. I do feel that the further I get from State College, the more empathy there is toward the victims and the more sobriety there is in discussion what happened and who’s at fault.”
I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that Shubin blasted the community in which he has made his livelihood every chance he got. The look of glee from the people in his office on the morning of the Freeh report release was one of the more disgusting scenes in the entire documentary. There’s just one catch: The film never discloses that Shubin collected millions of dollars in attorney fees for representing five Sandusky abuse claimants against the university. In and of itself, that’s not a problem — victims of child abuse need to be represented vigorously in the court of law. However, “Happy Valley” fails to disclose that Shubin has made a fortune on the theory that Penn State covered up child abuse. His appearance in “Happy Valley” is now the first bulletpoint on his attorney highlight reel. It’s Shubin’s right to shit on the Penn State community if he so chooses, but cashing in for millions of dollars on the Sandusky scandal is at least something that should be disclosed up front if you’re going to let that person talk about the situation. And besides that, his suggestion that Sandusky’s conduct was an “open secret” in the community, or that a climate that allows for child abuse is especially unique to State College, is just an abhorrent deviation from the truth.
One of the most profound scenes in the entire movie captures a protestor standing next to the Paterno statute with a disparaging sign interrupting pictures while Penn State fans threaten to kick his ass. This scene was used prominently in the documentary’s media campaign and was actually featured exclusively in the New York Times before the release. This gadfly, former Penn State professor Bernie McCue, is called a hero in the Times comment section. One commenter called him a “brave and honorable man who spoke out against what he believed was morally reprehensible.”
Again, it’s the right of the producers to capture this moment and include it in the film. But here’s another catch: McCue had been attacking the Paterno family for decades before November 2011 and has a criminal history of harassment. A simple Google search turns out piles of evidence that McCue is an imbalanced individual who hated Paterno for years. He’s twice pleaded guilty to harassment. He sends vile, unsolicited emails to other documentarians. Scott Paterno says he has been harassing the family for 20 years.
Again — the problem isn’t so much that the producers of “Happy Valley” decided to include this infuriating scene, but shouldn’t the viewer know that this guy hated Paterno long before the scandal hit? Wouldn’t that be an important piece of information in determining his credibility to opine on Paterno’s motives? Instead, McCue is presented as just a regular guy standing up for what’s right while the Penn State fans yelling him are just a bunch of blind football-worshipping hillbillies. If there’s a theme to this movie, it’s that.
If there is a “star” of this documentary, it’s Jerry Sandusky’s adopted son Matt. He appeared at the film’s debut at Sundance and is given, by far, the most face time of anyone. Matt is another subject that the “Happy Valley” producers give an incredible amount of credence to without much context.
I won’t spend much time evaluating Matt’s situation for you here. It’s already been done, and I have a great deal of sympathy for his situation as a former Second Mile child with a troubled past in general. But, continuing with the theme I’ve already mentioned, very little of it is disclosed to the viewer. On the first day of the Sandusky trial, Matt sat in the courtroom next to his mother in Jerry’s small support group. On the second day, Matt signed up with a lawyer (Shubin), claimed he was abused, and ultimately sued Penn State and settled for an undisclosed sum. This flip contradicted everything Matt had said under oath to a grand jury, every statement he had given to police, every statement he had given publicly, and everything he had previously said to his family. It is never mentioned that Matt never testified at trial.
There are obviously valid reasons child abuse victims change their stories sometimes, but “Happy Valley” barely touches on any of it. The producers give Matt leeway to say ridiculous stuff like: “In this town, if you’re religious, and you think of God as being the almighty, the all encompassing, you could put Joe Paterno into that realm. But then Jesus…would be Jerry,” which is utterly false. Those of us who had diligently followed the football team and university for years knew who Jerry Sandusky was in November 2011. But a vast majority (more than 90 percent, I’d wager) of the transient student body didn’t have a clue who he was until then. Hell, the casual fan can’t even tell you who our defensive coordinator is right now. To pretend like Jerry was some deity to feed into the “protect our heroes at all costs” theory is, again, irresponsible.
4. What is presented as a cross-section of the Penn State community isn’t really a cross-section at all.
On paper, it might seem like “Happy Valley” did its journalistic duty to present all perspectives in a mucky situation. The directors interview Penn State fans, young and old, a professor, a lawyer, residents, and the like. But it isn’t so much representative of the zeitgeist as it is a muddled series of extreme opinions slapped together under the illusion that it is representative of the community.
Consider this example. If you wanted to make a conclusive documentary on 9/11 and its impact on America, you would be smart to interview families of victims, survivors, first responders, Rudy Giuliani, New York residents, and other people connected to the tragedy. But what you wouldn’t do, if you wanted to make a documentary that meant anything at all, is interview a 9/11 conspiracy theorist and an anti-Muslim jingoist and give those fringe viewpoints the same credibility and airtime as the former.
This is essentially what Happy Valley does. It amplifies the most extreme viewpoints (the student vs. Shubin, for instance) and presents them as equally valid on the intellectual stage as everyone else. It’s the equivalent of using Obama birth certificate truthers to represent the entire Republican party. Above all, it’s patently dishonest. Only a few interview subjects in “Happy Valley,” like Posnanski and Communications professor Matthew Jordan, are at all careful in their responses and valuable in understanding local sentiment. The rest (not including Sue/Jay/Scott Paterno) is mostly just a bunch of loud noise, which makes the community look like a cesspool of football crazed idiots.
5. The story isn’t over.
This isn’t necessarily the fault of the producers, but any documentary released before the Penn State administrators go to trial will inevitably be incomplete. “Happy Valley” ends with the beginning of the 2012 football season. The multitude of major “wins” Penn State has accumulated since fall 2012 is voluminous, including the special 2012 football season and Bill O’Brien, revocation of the NCAA sanctions (and the emails that were made public as a result), the new university president’s Freeh report renouncement, among others. None of these are included in the documentary, but all are monumentally important to understand this story. The documentary is already outdated — it ends with the line “three former Penn State administrators will face trial in 2015.” Those three administrators, who are being charged based on only a handful of emails that can be interpreted a number of different ways by reasonable people, won’t go to trial until at least 2016 if not longer if the pretrial motions continue to drag on. If they are acquitted or the charges are dropped, a lot of people are going to look very foolish, and Amir Bar-Lev and Ezekiel Morgan are going to be two of them.
TL;DR: What could have been a documentary about a community’s complicated emotions while attempting to navigate one of the most complicated and least understood situations in recent history turned out to be a journalistically dishonest and slipshod effort that has unfair consequences for the national perception of Penn State now that the film is on Netflix. As a Penn Stater, it is only worth watching if you want to put yourself through the emotional roller coaster that was November 2011 again. Such retrospection is valuable, if only to see how far we’ve come.
As a friend of mine said, “If you really want to destroy us, you’re going to have to do better than that.”