I knew the story. I put coverage of Larry Nassar’s investigation and trial into The Gazette for what felt like ages. Still, the Netflix documentary "Athlete A" was jarring and the questions will linger.
They dove right in. The documentaries I’ve seen usually take a while to set up the stakes, to paint the picture of how this was allowed to happen and connect you to the individuals you’ll follow. There’s a brief montage where Olympic hopeful-turned-NCAA champion Maggie Nichols and her parents are introduced and we learn about her career — “You give up almost everything” for the sport, she says. But within minutes we’re at the Indianapolis Star, investigating tips. The world of elite gymnastics is built as we go.
Hearing the announcer point out Nassar tending to an injured gymnast at the 2011 national championships — “He keeps these women together” — was gut-check moment No. 1 of many.
One aspect that felt deliberately and respectfully done was opting against focusing on Nassar himself as some sort of perverse case study. This film will likely one day fall into a Netflix category called “Crime Documentaries” or something similar alongside the likes of Ted Bundy. That sort of true-crime take sells. The temptation must have been there to try and gain insight into why Nassar did what he did. But he is shown and mentioned only as part of his case, and focus is given to the gymnasts who came forward and the journalists, detectives, attorneys and parents who helped make it happen. It made for a subtly powerful statement.
The documentary doesn’t stop at tracking Nassar’s atrocities and suggests accountability goes far above and beyond him. National team coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi’s methods are described before and after they defected to the United States in 1981, and it’s suggested that “the line between tough coaching and child abuse” was so blurred by them that it created the perfect formula for further, widespread abuse, sometimes at their Texas ranch. More than 500 gymnasts have reportedly come forward. The Karolyis weren’t charged.
USA Gymnastics’ dangerous policies, stall tactics and shady dealings are also highlighted. Nichols’ parents describe how and why, well out of their depth, they trusted the powerful names in the sport to do right by their daughter while the threat of the Olympics hung over their heads.
Though she isn’t the titular Athlete A, Rachael Denhollander is no less of a star. Waiting with her story and armed with medical documents, a seemingly strong moral compass and grim knowledge of the legal challenges ahead, she put a name, face and voice to the accusations alongside several anonymous sources. With her royal blue dress and red lipstick, she appears as a modern Lady Justice.
The singular, youthful-sounding hum that follows you through the documentary’s score is joined by several others in a chorus over the credits, the way dozens of former and current gymnasts gave victim impact statements in front of Nassar. That didn’t make me feel any lighter. This documentary won’t send you to bed happy, confident justice was served.