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Premiering in May on HBO after its Tribeca Film Festival bow this week, Erin Lee Carr’s documentary about the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal aims, much like the cable network’s controversial Michael Jackson exposé, Finding Neverland, to give victims a resounding voice. At 88 minutes, At the Heart of Gold is less than half the length of the four-hour Finding Neverland, and there are times when it would be preferable to sit more exhaustively with the testimony of the women who were molested over decades by sociopathic team physician Dr. Larry Nassar.
The difference here is that, in comparison to Jackson’s alleged, if highly convincing two victims, Nassar’s targets number inarguably in the hundreds. Many of them spoke in public over a days-long sentencing hearing in early 2018 after Nassar was finally brought to justice. Carr presents these on-the-record victim impact statements as she does the many talking head interviews with current and former female gymnasts who found themselves in Nassar’s pedophilic sights — like a ringing, uniformly righteous howl. At the same time, each of the women Nassar preyed upon are clearly at different stages of acceptance, which often undercuts the aura of universal empowerment that the film is trying to cultivate.
Carr does seem aware of this contradiction, and she works hard in the early going to position Nassar’s crimes as one symptom of a much larger, potentially perennial disease. At ground zero is gymnastics coach super-couple Bela and Marta Karolyi, who reworked the procedures for the sport in the 1970s. Olympic training began at a much younger age (6 years old, in many cases), and with such intensity and rigor on body and mind that a number of girls remained in an effectively prepubescent state into their teens. This created a perfect environment for abuse and exploitation of many kinds.
Almost all of the people in power at USA Gymnastics and its offshoots are deserving of the highest contempt. There are the Karolyis, whose training camp was a haven for Nassar’s crimes. There’s CEO Steve Penny, who buried numerous accusations of wrongdoing and tampered with evidence so as to protect his organization’s bottom line. Especially incensing are the actions of Twistars Gymnastics Club owner and Nassar best friend John Geddert, whose cruel training methods (bad behaviors much less easily prosecutable) constitute a whole other sort of mental and physical abuse. At the Heart of Gold is strongest when it focuses victims’ grievances at the systemic inequities that allowed a Nassar to happen and endure, in the process revealing how difficult it is, outside of a tsunami-sized groundswell, to hold people accountable and to enact real change.
It’s understandable, if still disappointing, when Carr turns away from these crucial macro issues and concentrates, in the film’s second half, almost exclusively on Nassar and his comeuppance. The victim impact statements have a raw power, of course. It’s gut-wrenching listening to Kyle Stephens, a non-gymnast victim, describe how her father refused to believe her story of assault, and then killed himself when he realized how wrong he had been. Just as it’s satisfying beyond measure watching Rachel Denhollander — the woman whose Title IX complaint against Nassar helped encourage numerous other victims to step forward — stare down her abuser, an action that rights the balance of her dehumanization, even if only temporarily.
There is a degree, however, to which At the Heart of Gold utilizes heart-rending moments such as these for antithetically mawkish uplift, a shallowness unfortunately bolstered by an end-credits needle drop of Sia’s emancipatory ballad/Maison Repetto shoe-wear tie-in “I’m Still Here.”
U.S. Distributor: HBO
Director: Erin Lee Carr
Producers: Dr. Steven Ungerleider, David Ulich
Screenwriter: Erin Lee Carr
Cinematographer: Bryan Sarkinen
Editor: Cindy Lee
Composers: Drum & Lace and Ian Hultquist
Executive Producers: Michael Cascio, Sarah Gibson
Associate Producer: Jen Maylack
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)
Sales: Gina Mundy
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