Netflix documentary Athlete A isn’t just about a sports scandal. The film emphasizes the voices of Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, and Jamie Dantzscher, three gymnasts among hundreds who came forward to bury sports doctor and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar.
Athlete A shows us the many factors and failures that contributed to the abuse over the decades. With journalistic evidence of a cult-like environment and many painful accounts of sexual abuse, the documentary proves to be an eye-opener.
1. Quick Review
Athlete A lays out the story of how Larry Nassar was caught after at least two decades of abusing girls and young women under his care. He was previously the doctor for the women’s program of USA Gymnastics.
The title refers to an anonymous athlete, who reported her abuse to the authorities in 2015. Maggie Nichols has dropped from the 2016 Olympic team shortly afterward. She and her parents tell their stories in the film.
Through copious new interviews, a wealth of older footage, and reams of legal documents, the film unfolds both the journalistic process behind the investigation and the brave survivors who made it possible.
2. Is it worth watching?
Athlete A works as both a meticulous investigation of the case against Nassar and an emotional unburdening for his many victims. By its end, its revelations demand the full-scale dismantling of every facet of American Gymnastics.
Had Cohen and Shenk opted to follow Nichols alone, Athlete A would have been stirring enough. She and her beguilingly open parents share years’ worth of stories that highlight just how horrific the USAG world is to its seemingly beloved athletes.
Cohen and Shenk adopt a calm, even-handed tone throughout the documentary. They provide an empathetic platform for Nichols, Denhollander, and Dantzscher to share their experiences while breaking down barriers of fear, intimidation, and silence.
The documentary’s descriptions of abuse are extremely disturbing to watch. What begins as a well-researched exploration of Nassar and his victims steadily turns into something more wide-ranging, and even more horrifying.
Maggie Nichols was a gymnastics whiz kid. She competed on a national level at age 10, and by 18, seemed to be a top candidate for the U.S. Olympic team. Yet she didn’t make the team, as punishment for reporting Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse.
Maggie Nichols and Rachel Denhollander were the first accusers to go on record with their claims. Athlete A also follows the trio of IndyStar journalists who uncovered those early accusations against Nassar.
Athlete A reveals that the toxic culture of USA Gymnastics was about protecting the brand, not the athletes themselves. The selection and training techniques that produced champions also made the girls vulnerable to abuse.
The documentary also follows Bela and Marta Karolyi. They are infamous Romanian coaches involved in the scandal. Thanks to ruthlessly cruel and abusive methods, they spawned superstars like Nadia Comăneci and unhealthy culture of fear.
II. Music & Visuals
The music director of this documentary Jeff Beal. He is an American score composer of music for film, television, recordings, and the concert hall. Beal has been highly regarded as a jazz instrumentalist and versatile composer.
He has previously been nominated for sixteen Primetime Emmy Awards and has won five times. He is also the winner of the BMI Film & TV Awards and Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards in 2019.
Beal’s music often incorporates a synthesis of improvisatory and composed elements. The songs in its soundtrack include Appointments, by Julien Baker in its much-awaited trailer.
One of the most gratifying moments of the documentary comes near the end. The abuse survivors take back the power that was stripped from them as children by calling out Nassar’s harmful actions in court. This proved to be an extremely powerful visual.
3. Final Thoughts
Athlete A explores the power dynamics of sexual abuse thoroughly. It shows us how girls were manipulated to believe cruelty was the price they needed to pay for global Olympic glory.
The documentary film also examines how Nassar plied young gymnasts with kindness in the face of the Karolyis’ cruelty. It paints a giant neon arrow on the relentless abuse from all sides and righteously indicts them for their deception.
Through even-handed reporting and a series of first-person emotional accounts, Athlete A excavates one of the modern sports’ most horrific abusers and systems. It isn’t preachy, and instead, works from one key belief that change must start somewhere.
Hopefully, Athlete A can contribute to ending it for good.