"Athlete A" Movie Review
Despite all of us being well aware of the scandal that brought down USA Gymnastics a few years ago, my guess is that the vast majority of people have never heard the name Maggie Nichols. And I’ll admit that until I watched Netflix’s powerful and vital new documentary Athlete A, I was among them. The story of how Nichols (and many others) stepped up and spoke out about sexual assaults, cover-ups, and the totalitarian regime of USAG is not only worthy of your undivided attention, it’s as inspirational as they come. But parts of the story are also more sickening and infuriating than you could imagine. And that’s saying a lot.
Nichols, a member of the team from 2013 to 2016, was the first to report an assault at the hands of team physician Larry Nassar, and, in doing so, eventually brought about that unforgettable moment in a Michigan courtroom as more than 150 of his victims got the chance to confront him. Alongside fellow gymnasts Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher, Nichols is the beating heart and determined face at the center of Athlete A. And they are all survivors, heroes, and testaments to the power of perseverance and fortitude.
The film, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, is a perfectly-sculpted, three-fisted punch aimed at Nassar himself, the leadership of USAG (including the once-vaunted Karolyis and also former president Steve Penny), and the overall blind-eye culture of brutality and denial that pervaded the organization for decades. Along the way, we learn some much-needed history and background, which is indelibly revelatory in explaining (though not remotely excusing) how USAG ended up where it did.
Told in equal measure from the perspective of the gymnasts and also that of the Indianapolis Star investigative reporting team that exposed the story in 2016, Athlete A is a documentary of extraordinary strength and relevance. Among other things, we learn of how complaints were filed against 54 separate coaches but then stuffed away in a file cabinet for decades and how Bela and Marta Karolyi ruled with a systemic pattern of physical and verbal abuse, which opened the door for “nice-guy” Nassar to swoop in, earn the girls’ trust, and then exploit it. In what may be one of the more disheartening segments of the film, we also gain an entirely new perspective of everything from Kerri Strug’s one-legged vault to McKayla Maroney’s “not impressed” face, as we are made to realize how tainted by a vile and sinister system those iconic moments really were.
It’s difficult to quantify how heinously awful the USAG’s policies and denials were during those times, but suffice to say that you should grab a tissue box and a pillow (to punch and/or scream into) before sitting down to watch Athlete A. There are parts that will enrage you (including every scene featuring the despicable Penny), and there are many more that will make you weep for the hundreds of girls who had their innocence stolen from them by adults they trusted. The ultimate feeling, though, is one of hope and persistence and standing up for what is right, whether you’re a reporter chasing down a story or a teen-aged gymnast who helped bring down an institution led by bullies, sexual predators, and liars.