Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, however, have delivered a film that stands on its own merits. They elected three years ago to focus on a collection of personalities who were in on the ground floor of the Nassar investigation, and, remarkably, they have succeeded.
On-camera subjects of “Athlete A,” which is still available on the streaming platform, begin with the title character in Maggie Nichols, the first elite gymnast to lodge a complaint against Nassar; “Athlete A” is now Nichols was described in a report on the Nassar case before she went public with her accusations.
Others include Rachael Denhollander, the first to go public with accusations against Nassar; the staff of The Indianapolis Star, the first to publish accusations against the longtime gymnastics team doctor; John Manly, the California attorney who filed the first civil actions against USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee; and police investigator Andrea Munford and prosecutor Angela Povilatis, the first to go beyond years of whispered questions and vague concerns about Nassar to assemble a case that would stick in a court of law.
All have their say, and the combination of those firsts enables “Athlete A” to take its place as a cornerstone in the continuing struggle to help gymnasts, fans of the sport and, hopefully, law enforcement, understand how such an unimaginable combination of evil, charm, willful neglect and unintended negligence could take hold over so many for so long.
“We did achieve that basic goal, which is to give the viewer the experience of what it took to unwind this scandal, not just Larry Nasser’s abuse but of the larger scandal of the cover-up and the system that was created that allowed people like Nassar to become arguably one of the more successful child predators in American history,” Shank said.
Whether there are more documentaries to come is to be determined. Cohen, however, said “Athlete A” is far from the final word on the continuing story of USA Gymnastics and the wreckage that surrounds the sport in the wake of Nassar’s guilty plea for sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts under the guise of medical care.
“None of the civil cases (against USA Gymnastics) have been settled. That’s one example,” Cohen said. “A major sticking point with USA Gymnastics is that the regulations and policies that govern that body and other Olympic bodies have not really changed significantly.
“There has been some change, but if you went inside the interior of the gymnastics world, you would find that no one really feels like the kind of systemic change that is necessary has yet happened.”
Gymnasts, including Olympic champion Simone Biles, and lawmakers, including Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also continue to call for the Justice Department to make public its investigation into the FBI’s delayed response to allegations against Nassar, who continued to abuse young women for months after the Nichols family and her coach first reported their complaints to USA Gymnastics and the FBI.
Cohen and Shenk said their desire and ability to get access to every central character stemmed in large part from producer Jennifer Sey, a USA Gymnastics national champion in the mid-1980s who in 2008 wrote a book titled “Chalked Up” that detailed problems with the sport’s culture.
“When she brought the idea up to us, it was at the time that the Nassar story was still breaking and he wasn’t yet in jail,” Cohen said. “She was appealing to us to think about a film that would dive into the larger systemic abuses inside USA Gymnastics.
“John and I started thinking about how we wanted to do that. And it occurred to us that it would make sense for us to try and have every character in the film, be exactly the right first person to have done something in the chain of this story.”
In that vein, Cohen and Shenk began in late 2017 making regular visits to Indianapolis to meet with Tim Evans, Marisa Kwiatkowski and Mark Alesia, the reporters who wrote the initial stories in 2016 about USA Gymnastics’ failure to police complaints against coaches. The scenes of reporters and editors discussing the Nassar story were filmed as they happened and were not reconstructed after the fact.
“We thought from the beginning that we wanted to start with the reporters and kind of show how that chain of events led to the survivors calling them,” Cohen said. “Each link in the chain became a very important factor to expose the system.”
Those links included Denhollander, who contacted the newspaper after its initial story to describe her own abuse by Nassar, and Mumford, a member of the Michigan State University police department whose initial questioning of Nassar is depicted as the beginning of the end of his efforts to pass off abuse as legitimate medical care.
Cohen and Shenk collaborated on a 2017 film titled “Audrie & Daisy” that concerned sexual abuse and learned that, as Shenk said, “police really don’t do a great job of investigating rape and sexual assault.”
“And so, when you see Andrea Mumford interviewing Larry Nasser, she did not let Nassar do to her what he had done to so many people who came before her. She did not let him off the hook. If Rachel Denhollander had gone to the police and the wrong cop had been assigned to this, that could have stopped this whole thing in its tracks.”
Nichols’ willingness to cooperate with the filmmakers can’t be overestimated, either. Nichols in 2015 was a favorite of the devoted fans who refer to themselves as the “gymternet,” but she suffered a knee injury in 2016 and by the time of the 2016 Olympic trials, it was clear in the comments of national team coordinator Martha Karolyi that she had little chance of making the team for the 2016 Olympics.
At the time, it was assumed that Karolyi’s attitude was in keeping with her traditional approach to team selection. In retrospect, given the knowledge now that Nichols already had complained about Nassar’s treatment, suspicions will linger whether those complaints could have influenced the team’s selection.
Nichols, however, went on to a successful collegiate career at the University of Oklahoma, and her emergence as a two-time NCAA all-around champion provided a satisfying bonus for viewers in a film that all too often could be a grim view.
“That was the beautiful thing about Maggie,” Cohen said. “She was destroyed by this experience, but she had this incredible comeback and regained her passion and interest in the sport to become a brilliant NCAA champion. She was an important first in the story.”
Now that the film is available as Cohen and Shenk have moved on to other projects, and while Nassar is behind bars and USA Gymnastics is lodged in bankruptcy court in the wake of claims against it by former athletes, the filmmakers remain skeptical about the prospect that full justice will be meted out in the larger case of the failure of USA Gymnastics to protect its athletes from abuse.
“Nasser abused children as early as 1997, and he got away with it because there was a system in place that allowed us to do so. There were many, many other people who chose to look the other way or chose to believe in him rather than take seriously the concerns of these girls and their families,” Shenk said.
“We’re scratching our heads that as observers as human beings and Americans as to why it took so long for the FBI to take action. We’re still waiting to hear. And so one has to wonder, like, you know, what’s it going to take” There’s still a ways to go.”
With sports at a halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Athlete A” has been a focal point on social media that has transcended its core gymternet audience at a time when streaming platforms such as Netflix are adding subscribers at a faster rate than traditional cable and satellite services.
Netflix previously enjoyed viewership and critical success with the Oscar-winning documentary “Icarus” and “Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez,” so the decision to air the film on Netflix has been a happy plus for the directors and producers.
“We felt very committed to working with a streaming platform like Netflix,” Cohen said. “The kind of films that we make have a social message, and we want as many people as possible to see it and respond to it, and the way to do that is to have it on Netflix.
“We felt committed to that from early on. Having a film like this, it was kind of our responsibility to have a seen by as many people as possible.”
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