Some documentaries have such a dramatic subject, they don’t need any filmmaking bells or whistles. Such is the case with the new Netflix documentary ATHLETE A, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, that premiered June 24. The story of systematic child molestation occurring in USA Olympics women’s gymnastics is presented in an exceedingly clear and focused way. The documentary doesn’t need anything more than the facts and the devastating testimony of all involved to make it stand as one of the year’s most powerful and absolutely best films.
The story focuses primarily on the victims of Dr. Larry Nasser, the Olympic women’s gymnastics team doctor from 1992-2015. He was a pedophile who sexually assaulted over 300 girls during his tenure, all under the auspices of providing medical treatment for the young, female athletes. ATHLETE A chronicles his villainy, but it also indicts the numerous enablers that turned a blind eye to his abuse, including the United States of America Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny, the University of Michigan which also employed Nasser, and the esteemed training duo of coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi. The couple not only knew about Nasser, but they themselves abused the girls via name-calling and a Marine-like discipline demanded of these girls, many under ten years of age. (You’ll never look at the Olympic clips of Bela being so avuncular to Mary Lou Retton or Kerri Strug the same again.)
It’s an ugly portrayal of the sport, and yet, despite the horrors of Nasser’s actions, and the outrageous demands placed upon these kids to compete, hearing the clear-eyed testimony from the now-adult competitors manages to make the film feel almost uplifting. Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher, and Jessica Hollander are inspiring in their clear-eyed recounting of events and the bravery it takes to talk about all they experienced.
Also, making the film feel positive, despite the material, are the intrepid reporters who give witness to all they discovered through the thick and thin of the story. Marisa Kwiatkowski of the Indiana Star daily newspaper was one of the key people to bring the stories to light, beginning with her investigation of various women’s gymnastic coaches involved in sexual molestation. Some 54 coaches were accused of such assault over 10 years, and yet the USAG barely did anything about it. Fellow Indy reporters Mark Alesia and Steve Berta join in the investigation and also tell what they discovered in the conspiracy by the USAG to sweep it all under the rug.
The documentary goes over a lot of details, some unseemly to hear. It’s also expertly edited and is never at a loss for footage. Cohen and Shenk manage to incorporate superb footage from training sessions, competitions, and various other Olympic-related events, including many revelatory moments never before seen on television. The filmmakers also show a lot of Nasser’s trial too, not to mention the various athlete’s testimony at the court proceedings. Composer Jeff Beal underscores it all with some tense but discreet cues, though he never overdoes it. Beal knows that the story is riveting enough as it is.
“Athlete A” is Maggie Nichols, the young woman who first brought the case against Nasser, and she has the most time on-camera here. Her candid testimony, along with that of parents Gina and John Nichols, is heartbreaking. Still, the filmmakers intercut contemporary footage of her performing gymnastics at college to ensure that the audience understands how well the Nichols family has been able to process what happened and move forward. It’s an incredible testament to their courage and perseverance, and it keeps the film from becoming too depressing.
The big question that Kwiatkowski asks early in the film is why all of this went on for decades without any legitimate legal action. Those in the Olympics that could have done something about it did precious little, and it paints a worrisome portrait of greed and amorality in the sport. Not surprisingly, the powers-that-be turned a blind eye to the care of the girls as their victories and money kept rolling in. It’s no accident that USAG CEO Steve Penny started as the marketing manager for the enterprise, clearly valuing the selling of an image rather than the preservation of girls’ childhoods. And one of the scummiest moments on display in the documentary is when the cowardly Penny pleads the fifth while being asked questions during a Senate hearing.
Thankfully, the film chronicles a fair amount of justice served in the fallout, yet the jury is still out on whether it changes much in regards to how the sporting world learns to champion morality over commerce.