Netflix’s Athlete A Review: One Of The Great Investigative Documentaries Of Our Time

Athlete A, a film that spotlights the biggest sexual abuse scandal in U.S. sports history, provides two aspects that any great true-crime documentary must: context and narrative.
Netflix’s Athlete A Review: One Of The Great Investigative Documentaries Of Our Time

Directors: Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk
Genre: Documentary
Streaming on: Netflix

While watching Untouchable, otherwise known as "the Harvey Weinstein documentary," I remember thinking: powerful, but what's the point? By the time this film was seen, most of us already knew everything there was to know about the disgraced Hollywood mogul. The fire had been lit in print. The New York Times had broken the story about his predatory ways, and The New Yorker ran with it. Both publications continued to do incredible, award-winning investigative journalism for months. Their thorough reportage had not only exposed years of systemic and sexual abuse but also – through some very evocative writing, phrasing and storytelling – painted a mental picture of a precise moment in American history. Our imagination did the rest. There was not much a film could add, except perhaps texture: a broken voice, a blurred face, the shot of a hotel or a boardroom.

But Athlete A, a film that spotlights the biggest sexual abuse scandal in U.S. sports history, begs to differ. A good documentary assumes that the viewer knows next to nothing about its subject. As a result, it reveals information rather than reconstructing history. It convinces us that, just like the makers, we, too, are pursuing the truth in real time. We, too, are relearning what we might have previously known. For instance, I was familiar with the specifics. I had read about Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team physician accused of sexually abusing 250 girls – most of them underaged athletes – in his three-decade-long career. I was aware that a team of reporters from the Indianapolis Star had broken the story in 2016, leading to official hearings and the eventual nailing of the doctor. I had read that Simone Biles, the reigning world and Olympic champion, was one of several survivors who made a statement. I had sensed that this was not just a case of one rotten egg; it was an institutional coverup job. But these were disparate snippets in my head. It missed a thread.

The magnitude of deceit had dawned upon us, but Athlete A – whose title alludes to Maggie Nichols, the first gymnast to report Nassar's abuse – does an exceptional job of streamlining our rage. In addition to the facts, it provides two aspects that any great true-crime documentary must: context and narrative. Context: of the athletes, of the sport, of the gatekeepers of the sport, of why Nassar's behaviour went unchecked for years. And narrative: which not only helps piece together a phantom puzzle of whens but also presents a broader portrait of how the reporters and lawyers went about piecing together that puzzle. The film doesn't base its truth in their efforts to uncover the truth; it makes these storytellers an integral part of the story. It follows them instead of featuring them. Consequently, it zooms out to reveal not just an organization but an entire culture of complicity.

And consequently, Athlete A becomes about the significance of journalism just as much as the importance of justice. At a time when journalists across the globe are being laid off by cost-cutting publications, and in an age where rape survivors are mocked before they are believed, I can't think of a more emphatic film. It helped me join the dots, but it also enabled me to understand that it's never as simple as "the predator is convicted, humanity wins". It's never as straightforward as Larry Nassar being a paedophile and a pervert. The story, as always, begins much before once upon a time.

Gymnastics is an unnatural sport. It combines the visual dimension of art with the physical dimension of athleticism. It requires athletes to merge the primal elasticity of objects and animals to create an illusion of aesthetic harmony. It forces the human body to do things it's not supposed to – fold into positions, symphonize motions and defy physics. As a result, it also makes people do things to a human body that they're not supposed to. The coaches demand fear and unnatural results; they become the visible monsters. But, as in the case in USA gymnastics, their ruthless ways drive the girls to seek solace in the invisible monsters. A kind doctor. A funny physician. A paternal figure in a camp of disciplinarians. The man who offers candy. The quirky chap who touches you funny during medical checkups. It becomes about choosing the lesser evil between mental abuse and physical abuse. It becomes about staying silent, because a childhood already robbed of innocence in pursuit of Olympic glory cannot afford to be robbed anymore.

Athlete A also traces the history of the sport – from an environment of older athletes in the 60s to the Eastern Bloc teenagers crushing the 70s and 80s – in a way that reveals why the girls are at the mercy of opportunistic adults. They perform at a tender age, when the mind isn't equipped with the capacity to think about anything other than the perfect routine. This turns the love of winning into more of an illness than an obsession. The film interviews survivors with a listening ear, healing their psychology rather than exploiting it. ("Was Nassar abusive during the Rio Olympics?" as opposed to "Did Nassar sexually abuse you at the Olympics?"). All along, the narrative never lets the viewer escape the intangibility of the "system". Orders from the top hang thick in the air – ominous bosses conspire against the accusers to protect the wholesome image of US gymnastics.

A newsroom of reporters trying to crack the timeline provides the film with a running commentary of how deep the rot runs. Emails are discovered, confessions are corroborated. It's heartbreaking to see Nichols' parents disclose how their talented daughter was mysteriously excluded from the elite team headed to the 2016 Rio Olympics months after she had reported Nassar to her coaches. It's infuriating to see Steve Penny, the ex-CEO of USA gymnastics and a man with a douchey all-American corporate face, plead the fifth to every question posed to him at a hearing. Not unlike Weinstein, he fakes disability and limps out of the courtroom. It's inspiring to see the lawyers and judges in a courtroom get overwhelmed by the survivors' testimonies and their support for one another. It's a ride through a tragic theme park that, in the mad dash to sell tickets, failed to protect its adolescence.

That I, as a viewer, am in the position to feel the momentum of emotions is a testament to just how empathetic and well-rounded Athlete A is – as both a work of visual art and a work of investigative craft. It fuses the rigour of non-fiction storytelling with the sequential theatricality of fictional filmmaking. The urgency of its texture is evident in how some of us now realise that there might have been more to the world-famous image of the peeved 16-year-old American gymnast McKayla Maroney on the Olympic podium. It doesn't seem as amusing or meme-worthy anymore. The crooked frown doesn't quite betray the darkness that, unbeknownst to the watching world, lurked in the USA locker room. After all, the expression had more to do with losing the gold medal than winning a silver. And in this feeling – of working to win but losing on all fronts – lies the story of every young athlete whose identity was consigned to an alphabet for showing courage. Fortunately, "A" is not a letter of singularity today. It is the grade of positivity, excellence and new beginnings.

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