I was sensing early on that Barry Levinson‘s Paterno (HBO, 4.7), about the Penn State child sex scandal of 2011 and ’12, and which primarily involved pedophile Jerry Sandusky and legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, wouldn’t be as good as Amir Bar Lev‘s Happy Valley (’14).
It couldn’t be as good, I figured, because Happy Valley is too brilliant, fascinating, penetrating, haunting, etc. It can’t be topped. I saw Paterno a week ago, and I’m sorry but the whole time I was saying over and over “this isn’t as good as it needs to be.” I wish it were otherwise.
I wrote the following (“The Town That Looked Away“) after catching it at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival: Amir Bar-Lev‘s Happy Valley is a shrewdly sculpted, richly perceptive study of denial — of people’s willingness and even eagerness to practice denial if so motivated.
“The specific subject is the Penn State child-abuse sex scandal, which resulted in convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky doing 30 years in jail and the late beloved Penn State coach Joe Paterno being at lest partly defined between now and forever as a pedophile enabler.
“The Freeh report (conducted by former FBI director Louis Freeh and his law firm) stated that Paterno, Penn State president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and school vp Gary Schultz all knew about Sandusky probably being guilty of child molestation as far back as 1998, and that all were complicit in looking the other way. State College residents and especially Penn State football fans were enraged when Paterno was fired for not saying or doing enough. Even after the Freeh report they wouldn’t let go.
“People always say ‘I never knew’ or ‘I never noticed anything’ whenever someone is busted for something appalling or illegal or worse. The central message of Happy Valley is that if people like or admire someone, they don’t want to know or notice anything bad about him/her. (That was Burt Lancaster‘s line in Judgment at Nuremberg — ‘If we did not know it’s because we did not want to know!’) People will do daily calisthenics to avoid facing facts. What’s great about Happy Valley is that it sticks to specifics and never mentions that denial disease is a pandemic.”
All Paterno is about, really, is the fact that lazy, borderline-senile “JoePa” (Al Pacino) was in major, serious, old-man denial. He didn’t wanna know, wanna know, wanna know….”who, me?” The movie doesn’t explore new material or engage you in ways you don’t see coming. It just plods along and grinds it all out — covering everything that you knew from Happy Valley but making you go half-blind from all the dark lighting. It’s not really a “bad” film as much as a sufficient, passable, mildly boring one.
Paterno is based on a script by Debora Cahn, John C. Richards and David McKenna. It seems to primarily be a journalism saga, pitting the late Joe Paterno (Al Pacino), Penn State’s legendary football coach who disgraced himself by looking the other way while Jerry Sandusky (Jim Johnson) did what he did with God-knows-how-many young guys, against real-life Patriot News reporter Sarah Ganim (Riley Keough), who’s now working for CNN.
Paterno rides side-saddle. It hints, implies, delivers a certain irony, doesn’t judge, plays it cool, lets the viewer suss it all out. Happy Valley does much, much more. It tells, shows, captures, digs in, illuminates, explains, reveals, penetrates. Just save yourself the trouble and watch Happy Valley on Netflix. That’s all you need to do.