Athlete A (4 stars)

Athlete A

Stirring and informative documentary which delves into the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal

The shameful story of USA Gymnastics is the subject of this expertly assembled documentary from Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power). Although it focuses heavily on the actions of disgraced team doctor Larry Nassar, the film casts its net wider to consider the culpability of an organisation where the widespread sexual abuse of its young female athletes, by Nassar and others, went unchecked for decades.

It's a restrained and informative but still undeniably stirring piece, concerned substantially with the trajectory and findings of an investigation by the Indianapolis Star, which began publishing articles on the subject in 2016. Like Spotlight, it paints a compelling, unflashy picture of undertaking a spiralling and far-reaching exposé, doggedly researched over years. It is, quite simply, journalism at its finest.

Even better is the voice the film gives to the survivors, who are remarkable in their poise, articulacy and resilience. Former gymnasts such as Jamie Dantzscher and Rachael Denhollander are interviewed about their experiences of being abused by Nassar as children and the similarly troubling aftermath, and the film features some of the harrowing impact statements that were read out to Nassar in court, where woman after woman bravely confronted her abuser. Their courage stands in stark contrast to USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny, who when asked in a legal setting what he knew about Nassar's actions repeatedly pled the fifth.

The filmmakers show how Nassar was able to exploit what athletes describe as an emotionally abusive culture of fear and silence at an organisation dominated by formidable coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi, worrying figures themselves. With Nassar styling himself as someone the girls could trust, in contrast to the authoritarian approach favoured elsewhere, and with their parents sometimes prevented from accompanying them, this predatory character was able to operate with impunity. Nassar is now behind bars, while the Department of Justice is investigating the handling of the sexual abuse allegations, so the fight evidently goes on.

Framed by the story of Maggie Nichols – identified as 'Athlete A' during initial legal proceedings – we see her childhood dream shattered, in a film that nevertheless ends on a more positive note. For all the horror here, there's hope too, for a society that increasingly allows victims to be heard, and the strength of Nichols and women like her is nothing short of astonishing.

Available to watch on Netflix from Wed 24 Jun.

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