- Movie Rating -

Athlete A (2020)

| December 5, 2020

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not been able to go to movie theaters nor film festivals.  So now, with the help of award-season screeners, this month I am catching up.

What comes to mind when most of us think if Olympic gymnastics are muscular bodies performing moves that most of us can hardly imagine that the physical form (not to mention gravity) could possibly allow.  It is exciting.  It is suspenseful and colorful and breathtaking.  There is a sense of national pride attached to the proceedings.  Every four years, I will admit that I am front and center for the whole show.  And yet, behind it all we are aware of the insidious culture that makes it all possible.  There are sinister organizational standard that goes beyond simply pushing these young women (girls actually) to go beyond perfection.  It also takes advantage of them through systematic abuse, physically, mentally and sexually.

Athlete A reveals the Olympic infrastructure as a toxic culture that is supposed to stand for national pride but instead is often run by individuals who used their position of power to cover up and victimized young girls.  In this case Larry Nassar, the doctor for the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team who sexually abused girls under the age of 16 for years and had the support of his superiors to make sure that it was never revealed and that the girls were forcibly intimidated into keeping quiet.

The achievement of Athlete A is that it allows a voice to the young women who were abused.  This is a talking head documentary but the heads that talk are the women who kept silent for years.  Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk give a great deal of screen time to the victims – now middle aged – who allow us accountable access to a closed system of pride and secrecy, a world that allowed girls under the age of 16 to be used and abused.  Within the closed doors of an isolated Texas training camp they were praised and celebrated when they performed but were fiercely berated when they made the slightest mistake.  Even worse is the fact that they became so use to this situation that they doubted their own experience.  For them, the mental, physical and sexual abuse was such a part of the program that they doubted their own experience.

Their ages are a major factor here.  Most were under the age of 16, most couldn’t even drive yet.  It is made clear that, once upon a time, female gymnasts were adults, mature women in their early-to-mid 20s, but that all changed in 1976 with the Perfect 10 Gold medal victory for the 14-year-old Romanian Nadia Comaneci.  In the years that followed, the ages of the girls on the U.S. team dropped, so that by the time of the 2012 team – the celebrated “Fierce Five” – they were tiny girls between the ages of 15 and 18, and many of those girls fell victim of Nassar’s abuse.

What is significant about the system that kept the girls quiet was that it correlated was that the shift in age came a shift in priority, the girls took less priority than keeping the U.S. Olympic name from being tarnished.  This can be seen in the induction of Steve Penny as the CEO of USA Gymnastics who placed the brand of national Olympic pride as a brand that was to be protected at all costs, and keep the sponsors from pulling out.  He knew what Nassar was doing and knew that a scandal was bad for business.  In that spirit, he attempted to cover up what he knew Nassar was doing instead of taking legal action against him.  To those involved, particularly Maggie Nicols, the first girl to come forward.  Penny assured her parent that the situation was under control by telling her parents to keep her claim quiet so as not to risk the FBI’s ability to to an inquiry.  The FBI, meanwhile, did nothing.

What makes the film special is that Cohen and Shenk allow us access to just enough so that we get the idea without being repelled – the story is repellant enough without being overly graphic.  They focus on the interviews and lay out the story in the manner of good journalism.  They have quite a story on their hands but they have so much inside insights that we feel that we are getting the wider scope of a story that we already know.

This is a tough story, and certainly one that is timely given the roar of the Me-Too movement.  It isn’t simply that women were abused, but that children were abused in a way that kept them isolated away from family, away from those who could protect them.  It wasn’t simply that they were sexually abused but that they were emotionally and mentally abused in such a way that they were hardly able to understand that they had been abused.  Worse it was a system that allowed it to happen, allowed it to be covered up, and demanded that the girls keep quiet for years.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized