By Bradley Lane
In late 2016 IndyStar published a piece about the failure of USA Gymnastics, located in Indianapolis, to report sexual abuse reports to the proper authorities after receiving them. This was the first in a series of events that would ultimately lead to the over 500 victims coming forward to report their own experiences, the arrest of four USA Gymnastics staff and the reveal of a system designed to keep silent the voices of abused children. Athlete A is a victim centered recounting of exactly how the staff of IndyStar broke the initial story and how they followed it to the top of USA Gymnastics leadership, and even the FBI. Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk focus their film around gymnast Maggie Nichols, who initially reported Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor, in 2015.
The directors’ approach to the heavy subject matter is unflinching, it never looks away from the evil on display, but is always tactful in its handling of the abuse. The narrative is most concerned with the health and safety of the athletes who had been abused, and secondly, with ending the systems that allowed this abuse to go on for so long. Its perspective is in stark contrast to its subject’s behavior, as it becomes clear the real antagonist is not Nassar or any specific person, but rather the systems in place to keep silent and oppress the voices of the abused.
The film combines archival footage of gymnastics events past and new footage shot for the film. This is typical of most documentaries but works especially well in this one because with the realization of the true nature of the athletes’ situations at the time the original event footage was shot, comes a sober recontextualization of what was viewed at the time as triumphs and victories.
To those unfamiliar with the story, it might have seemed like an open and shut case in the age of the #MeToo movement, but the reality of the situation is much more bleak. Each and every step of the way to justice the victims and IndyStar was blocked from telling the truth. For over two decades Dr. Nassar sexually abused countless children. The film makes clear that this was merely a byproduct of a toxic culture created by USA Gymnastics. The film traces back the origins of this toxic culture nearly 50 years and posits that this situation was not ever “if” but rather “when” these injustices would be committed.
The film culminates in a powerful declaration of strength and liberation from the victims’ own experiences and it is one of the most powerful sequences of the entire year. The film is profoundly affecting and one of the best films of the year thus far. If the film leaves you with any longstanding takeaways it is that it is massively important to support local journalism and believe women when they speak up about abuse. Athlete A is currently available to stream on Netflix. -4.5/5 stars