Netflix has perfected many styles of entertainment (stand-up comedy, food shows), but one style they have a monopoly on at the moment is the documentary. Just this year they have produced some of the more essential documentaries in modern times, and with the new Athlete A, they plan on keeping this reputation. This film is a powerful and fascinating watch, and gives viewers both a factual and emotional insight on one of the most expansive scandals in recent years: the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal. Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk utilize this dual approach well; the facts validate the emotional experiences and the powerful stories put faces on the large statistics. It is astonishing to think that a cover-up this large could thrive for so many years and affect so many people, but this is what happens when ambition and pride get in the way of human decency. Athlete A is yet another home run from Netflix and is an essential watch for every American.
When many people think of the USA Gymnastics scandal they think of one name: Larry Nassar. He was the team doctor for the women’s gymnastics team and a physician at Michigan State University, who also sexually abused nearly every girl whom he came into contact with. The true extent to how many people’s lives he affected may never be known, but the confirmed number is over 500 girls. This movie tells the story of those affected by his abuse from multiple perspectives: the reporters of the Indianapolis Star who uncovered the story, the lawyers and police officers who handled the case, and, most importantly, the survivors of Nassar’s abuse. However, another point that Athlete A explores is that the abuse went far beyond Nassar; the whole organization was one of toxicity and mistreatment that left many young girls permanently scarred from their experiences. The USA Gymnastics organization tried so hard to get the gold every year that they neglected their athletes: telling the girls to ignore their injuries, forcing them to lose an unnatural amount of weight, and justifying the abuse that was occurring.
The film toggles back and forth between the stories told firsthand from the survivors to the realization by the Indianapolis Star that something serious was going on at the local USA Gymnastics headquarters. Both storylines provide their own unique and important perspective on the story, with the reporters providing the outside perspective and the facts, and the survivors showing the toll the abuse takes and the personal and harrowing stories they have to tell. This is a great example of the importance of investigative journalism: this news publication published the truth when the organizations involved were trying to silence it. At first they went after Nassar, who had clearly been the center of this harmful system, but they didn’t stop there; they took down an entire system of mistreatment that plagued thousands of people involved. Athlete A goes out of its way to show the process of the Star, and implies that this uncovering of the truth is a prime example for how all news media should act.
However, the true heroes of this difficult story are the survivors. Without their testimony and bravery in sharing their stories, no justice would have come to Nassar or the other officials who covered up his sexual misconduct. The story of Maggie Nichols in particular is absolutely heartbreaking; she was one of the first girls to speak out about Nassar, and because of this her entire career as a gymnast was ruined and her chance of getting into the Olympics was erased. This is what happens when a woman speaks the truth in this society: she is silenced into submission by the aggressor and the abusers keep abusing. This was the culture in USA Gymnastics and it is the culture in many organizations across America and the world. Women need to have a safe space to share their experiences and be believed and heard, instead of doubted and shoved to the ground. This is slowly changing, but not fast enough, and Athlete A is a case study as to how these systems can damage survivors for a lifetime.
Probably the most surprising aspect about this film is how empowering it ends up being. The filmmakers could have easily let the subject matter drag down the tone of the movie, and obviously this is no comedy no matter which way you slice it. However, in the last act, the story becomes an empowering one of survivors who band together to fight their abuser and win. These women contacted each other, supported each other in an unprecedented way, and overcame a struggle that few women have the opportunity to overcome, and this film portrays the relief that comes with justice. Yes, more work needs to be done, but in order to adequately get its point across, Athlete A has to show the empowerment that justice serves to give viewers a glimpse of what we’re working towards.
Athlete A is a movie that needed to be made, and if all was right in the world every single survivor would have a chance to tell their story in this movie. But since there are over 500, the limitations are understandable. This is not only a fantastic exhibit of excellent journalism, but it contains a story that acts as a microcosm for the whole of society. We tend to cover up and silence these voices instead of empowering them and we do it often. USA Gymnastics was just the one that was uncovered in the public eye; how many more horrific organizations exist that we know nothing about? This movie is a compelling case for holding those organizations and people accountable for their actions and listening to those who are begging to be heard.
I give Athlete A an A. (Ha.)