The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"365 DAYS: A YEAR IN HAPPY VALLEY"

365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley

365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley is the first of two movies coming out this year to explore the Penn State/Jerry Sandusky scandal. (Amir Bar-Lev's Happy Valley is the other.) This is a subject that fascinates me personally because I live in Penn State country, have a multitude of friends who graduated from the university, and was even a student at one of PSU's branch campuses for a semester. Like everyone in this area, I've seen the impact the scandal has had on those whose lives have been touched by Penn State in some way. 365 Days is about the community's attempt to rebound from this horrific incident. It gets a few things right and two things incredibly wrong.

Directed by Eric Proulx, the documentary begins with a recap of the facts: former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of using his access to the PSU athletics program to groom young boys for molestation, beloved coach Joe Paterno was fired in the aftermath of this revelation, and the NCAA levied unprecedented sanctions against Penn State. From there, it interviews citizens of State College, Pennsylvania. They talk about how the town's morale was affected, as well as the hit its economy took when people stopped coming to football games in such large numbers. Also discussed are the efforts to rebuild PSU's image in the wake of the scandal. We meet coach Bill O'Brien, who got the football team back on its feet following Paterno's death, plus a number of alumni, who testify to the quality education they received at Penn State.

This is the section that 365 Days gets right. State College is a wonderful town and Penn State University is an outstanding school. Many fine people have graduated from there. Students, faculty, alumni, and staff of PSU who had nothing to do with Sandusky's heinous actions took an unfair hit from those (including some factions of the media) willing to brand everything PSU-related as bad. And yes, Louis Freeh's report, while containing some useful information, was shockingly incomplete, given that he neglected to interview the prime figures in the case. Everyone connected with PSU in any way is absolutely correct in their desire to maintain/restore pride to the school they love so much. There is much to be proud of.

What the film gets wrong is far greater, though. 365 Days is very willing to blame Sandusky, the NCAA, Louis Freeh, and the Board of Trustees for the school's fall from grace. It is not, however, so willing to blame the "culture of football" that allowed this crime to occur in the first place. The love of Penn State runs very deep. People drive blue-and-white cars in honor of the school's colors. I've known women who had the Nittany Lion logo sewn onto their wedding dresses. Many people believe Joe Paterno was almost literally a god. (No exaggeration some of them even think the Board of Trustees caused his death by firing him, as though cancer never could have taken him.) Speak negatively of Penn State around here and you just might get an earful. It was this extreme reverence that opened the door for Jerry Sandusky to walk through. He got away with it for so long because people excused away suspicious behavior. After all, he was Penn State's assistant football coach! How could he be capable of doing anything wrong? Sandusky knew kids would be drawn to the program and, more importantly, he knew the protectiveness over Penn State would provide the perfect cover for his crimes. 365 Days steadfastly avoids addressing this issue, to the degree that it makes you wonder if the filmmakers even know what the real problem is. How can something like this be prevented in the future if a key part of it isn't acknowledged?

Most outrageously, 365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley keeps leaving PSU to travel down the road to Nickel Mines, the Lancaster County town where gunman Charles Roberts entered an Amish schoolhouse, opened fire, and shot ten children, killing five of them. We are introduced to Roberts' mother and several Amish community members, who speak of the forgiveness offered up by the families of the dead children. What does this have to do with the Sandusky scandal? Nothing but 365 Days keeps trying to force a theme of forgiveness. It very offensively suggests that, just as the Amish forgave the man who ruthlessly gunned down several of their children, the world should forgive Penn State University. That's right, it equates bad publicity, NCAA penalties, and the firing of a beloved coach to the slaughter of innocent kids. This does not help the cause; in fact, such a spurious claim hurts the well-meaning people of State College who are serious about trying to bounce back.

At the center of it all is Paterno. The film argues that he got a bum rap. Well, sure he did. Bob Costas is interviewed here, making good sense of it all. Did Paterno take part in a plot to cover up Sandusky's actions, he asks? No, probably not. Should he have done more after being alerted of the suspicions? Yes, absolutely. I concur. So did Paterno, who admitted as much shortly before he died. The fact is, Joe Paterno knew full well that leaders occasionally have to take their lumps. Since the scandal revolved around his football program, there was no way he wasn't going down with the ship. It's a shame his amazing legacy ended with such a stain, but that's just the risk associated with being a leader, a role he dutifully accepted for decades. I suspect he might not have liked 365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley. It gets away from its initial theme of showing people making Penn State great again and insists on putting the university into the victim role, especially when making comparisons to the Nickel Mines tragedy. JoePa would have told the filmmakers to quit whining about what happened and get back in the game.

( 1/2 out of four)

Note: 365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley is available now on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, and other video-on-demand platforms.


365 Days: A Year in Happy Valley is unrated, but contains some adult language and mature themes involving child molestation. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.


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