Even for audiences in England, the story of Larry Nassar and his many horrendous crimes is a well known one to anyone watching the news around the time of the Indystar article that brought his actions to light. The deeper story however, the one of Athlete A and the morally bankrupt inner workings of USA Gymnastics and its president Steve Penny never really gained much traction outside of the US. Netflix’s latest documentary, a deep look into the negligence and failures of an entire institution, seeks to remedy that by bringing attention to the kind of complacency that allows this kind of abuse to take place, all the while doing something the adults at the heart of this tale failed to do, give these young women a voice.
While it is easy to say that the core of Athlete A is about the rampant sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk explore not just Nassar’s actions but the emotional abuse at the hands of coaches that not only ignored these claims but perpetuated a cycle of fear that stifled gymnasts ability to speak out. Understanding that asking how this happened is just as important as knowing why it happened, Cohen and Shenk stretch themselves to the outskirts of their story looking for answers, highlighting a landscape of neglect before honing in on the story proper.
Its easy to gloss over Athlete A as mortifying, a crime that never should have happened but ignoring the very real women at the heart of this story is exactly what caused this in the first place. The idea that this is a blink and its gone story, is dispelled here as over the course of the films runtime it goes from a true crime story, accompanied by an almost 1940s, Humphrey Bogart style noir score to a tale of courage and joint outrage towards a institution willing to break down and silence its competitors for the sake of reputation and fame.
Athlete A, despite its conventional talking heads, newspaper clipping and static photographs frames itself like a gangster movie akin to The Untouchables or LA Confidential, one of highly organised crime being carried out for profit and prestige, regardless of the innocent lives harmed in the meantime. Despite Nassar being the focus, he is rarely portrayed here as anything other than small, a small man who thinks hes someone special. Athlete A cleverly frames Steve Penny and the higher ups of USA gymnastics as the Capone to Indystar’s (the newspaper that first broke the story) Elliot Ness. The introduction of a line of inquiry that implies the FBI actively ignored the story based off pressure by Penny only adds further fuel to the analogy.
However despite building this image, the heroes here are never the reporters. A story built by writers and uncovered by them is never really about them. While impossible to ignore their contribution, most of Athlete A is populated with the voices of the gymnasts who were front and centre. Women like Maggie Nichols (the film’s titular Athlete A) and Rachel Denhollander (the first woman to come forward when the story broke) maintain the real focus and rightly so. Athlete A is the scream these women were never allowed under the tutilage of their iron willed coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi, abusers themselves. While impossible to ignore the pain caused, Cohen and Shenk understand that victimising these girls forgets their courage and determination.
Part of the reason the film is smartly framed as a true crime story is to highlight the seedy underbelly of success at any costs but also to villify the ones perpetuating the notion. At one point a former gymnast discusses the shocking ability USA gymnastics had to sacrifice its young for the sake of winning and while it would be simple to concentrate on this fact, Athlete A reminds us that the more interesting story here is one of recovery, of speaking out against your enemy, the one of David vs Goliath, the one that shocks but ultimately feels more about pride than the multitude of transgressions along the way.