Amir Bar-Lev, who directed the good documentaries “My Kid Could Paint That” and “The Tillman Story” and produced the uniquely intimate Hurricane Katrina documentary “Trouble the Water,” misses the mark with the Penn State scandal sheet “Happy Valley.”
He hasn’t done the ground-level reporting to bring new insight into the familiar and sad story of the sexual abuse of boys by former Nittany Lions assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Nor does Bar-Lev address our developing understanding of pedophilia as a psychiatric disorder, with both similarities to and differences from drug addiction.
Bar-Lev’s big “get” is Sandusky’s adopted son Matt, who relates the painful and moving process by which he came to realize that the man who changed his life in many positive ways also scarred him in others. But “Happy Valley” features no current or former team members, coaches, or administrators, or any of the victims involved in Sandusky’s criminal trial. Instead, we get “give them enough rope and let them hang themselves” interviews with Joe Paterno’s widow and sons, as well as his biographer and the artist whose mural of the team takes up most of a block in State College. Bar-Lev focuses on Paterno to examine how Sandusky was allowed to groom his young victims while “hidden in plain sight.” Unfortunately, he comes up with no better answer than America’s obsession with football.
I enjoyed Frederick Wiseman’s latest immersive documentary, “National Gallery,” about the museum in London’s Trafalgar Square – but not three hours’ worth. I recommend it for its insider’s view of all aspects of the operation, from docent tours to painstaking restorations to administrative meetings, and especially the treasure trove of masterworks that left even this lover of Impressionism and modern art with a newfound appreciation for more representational pieces. Still, there’s no denying that a certain hemorrhoidal squirminess sets in after the first two hours, making the third a mostly monastic exercise in pious asceticism.
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