'Athlete A': Film Review

Netflix
'Athlete A'
Sticks the landing.
6/24/2020

Co-directors Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen recount the USA Gymnastics/Larry Nassar abuse scandal through the eyes of the survivors in this Netflix doc.

As we all collectively delve deeper into the murky, back-catalogue crannies and seams of algorithmically-sorted content on various streaming platforms, it becomes clearer that there's a widespread quality-control problem with much of the material. Often there's too much of a good thing, especially in the realms of non-fiction stories, where it can feel like filmmakers didn't know how to wrangle complex tangles of material into coherent, manageable skeins of narratives. More importantly, there sometimes aren't enough producers, commissioners and gatekeepers telling them to pare it down.

However, it's the opposite of the case with Netflix's Athlete A, the latest documentary from husband-and-wife filmmaking team Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen. With a mere 103-minute running time, many viewers may find themselves wanting more. In fact, given the richness of the material — which touches on corruption and greed in sports, Cold War politics, eating disorders, abuse of all kinds, and fearlessly determined investigative journalists — it's a shame this didn't get as much airtime as the streamer's sprawling multi-part documentaries on Jeffrey Epstein (Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich) and the Rajneesh cult in Oregon (Wild Wild Country).

Packaged as a standalone film, this fascinating and sensitively handled accounting shines a light on the abuse scandal that was exposed by the Indianapolis Star's investigative reporting into USA Gymnastics (USAG). The fallout eventually sent sports physician Larry Nassar to jail for life in 2017 for molesting hundreds of young women after an emotionally devastating trial where many of his victims were allowed to offer supporting evidence for the prosecution. Those wrenching, tearful but brave testimonies were crucial in shifting the debate about abuse and the need to believe survivors, especially in the wake of the then-growing Harvey Weinstein scandal.

In addition to An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power and The Island President, Shenk and Cohen also collaborated on the outstanding doc feature Audrie & Daisy, which heard from teen survivors not just about the primary sexual abuse they suffered but also the subsequent bullying from neighbors and peers trying to silence them. Once again, the co-directors keep survivors at the very center of the story here.

It probably helped to have former top gymnast Jennifer Sey on board as a producer given that she wrote a book on her experience of abuse and bullying in the sport, the very informatively title Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams. Sey appears on camera herself to contribute a more aerial view of the endemic problems within the gymnastics world, having left it behind back in the 1980s. But for gymnasts Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard, Jamie Dantzcher and Maggie Nichols, the wounds are still raw.

Nichols, it transpires, was "Athlete A," the young person sheltered by a pseudonym in some legal documents that first aired Nassar's abuse, which in Nichols' case started when she was 15 years old. Like so many predators, he was skilled at deploying jargon and flim flam, in his case medical, to give himself cover for what even young girls like Nichols could sense was basically groping. She was overheard talking about it with another gymnast by a coach, and formal reports were fed back to USAG — but the organization, led by slimy CEO Steve Penny, hushed them up.

It was a pattern repeated over and over, and the film alludes to other cases of abuse in addition to Nassar's that USAG buried but that Indianapolis Star investigative reporters uncovered. But the film doesn't cover them with the same detail, sadly. It does, however, touch on the abusive methods of feted gymnastic coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi, Romanian emigres who once coached gold-medal-winning superstar Nadia Comaneci but defected to the West. The culture of bullying they fostered at their ranch, where they worked with the crème de la crème of American gymnastics, remained unchallenged because it got results.

After seeing this film, you may never again watch archive footage of youngsters performing dazzling feats of acrobatics on the mat without feeling a little sick, thinking about how much they were shamed when they put on a few pounds, were isolated from their families to keep them docile and turned against each other. Nassar may have been abusing them, but many of the women attest that he was also the only grown-up who was nice to them, maintaining their silence by giving them candy and chocolate and the only kind words they heard from the camp staff. Indeed, eventually the gymnastics industry doesn't seem so different from the Rajneesh cult.

Nevertheless, it feels at times like the film is pulling its punches a bit when it could be building a more devastating critique of the sexism of "female" sports, ones like gymnastics and ice skating, that impose — either implicitly or explicitly — standards about beauty and attitude (think of all those forced, rictus-like smiles) that have nothing to do with athletic prowess and skill. Perhaps the filmmakers didn't want to offend the participants who are still invested in the sport. But you can't but hope that someday there will be a supercut with extra polemic, extra anger and more vintage material about the Eastern European prodigies of old.

Production: A Netflix Original Documentary in association with Impact Partners, Artemis Rising Foundation, Meadow Fund, Dobkin Family Foundation, Chicago Media Project, Grant Me the Wisdom Productions, Actual Films 
Director: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk

With: Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard, Jamie Dantzcher, Jennifer Sey, Andrea Munford, Angela Povilaitis, Gina Nichols, John Nichols, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, Tim Evans, Steve Berta
Producers: Serin Marshall, Julie Parker Benello, Jennifer Sey
Executive producers: Richard Berge, Regina K. Scully, Barbara Dobkin, Eric Dobkin, Patty Quillin, Ann W. Lovell, Jenifer Westphal, Joe Plummer, Debbie Mcleod, Jay K. Sears, Ken Nolan, Christina Nolan, Jim Swartz, Susan Swartz, Dan Cogan, Geralyn White Dreyfous, Jenny Raskin
Co-Executive Producers: Katy Drake Bettner, Nancy Blachman, Ian Darling, John H. N. Fisher, Jennifer Caldwell, Nion Mcevoy, Leslie Berriman
Director of photography: Jon Shenk
Editor: Don Bernier
Music: Jeff Beal
103 minutes