Netflix's Athlete A is more than Spotlight for gymnastics — it's the best true-crime documentary around

Gabriella Geisinger
Photo credit: Netflix

From Digital Spy

To say Athlete A is Spotlight for gymnastics is both accurate and reductive. The documentary, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, tells two stories at once: the first is about the gymnasts who stood up against their abuser - USA Gymnastics' doctor Larry Nassar - and in doing so helped hundreds of other survivors come forward for justice.

The second is about how necessary local journalism is to giving these voices a platform to be heard and pushing for the truth. And the whole thing is done without falling into common tropes of true-crime documentaries (like the Ted Bundy Tapes): sensationalising the abuser, neglecting the vital importance of survivors, flashy storytelling devices, and more.

Photo credit: Netflix

Instead, it places the survivors at the heart of the story, as the engine that drives the plot. They are Jamie Dantzscher, Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard, and Maggie Nichols, among other women whose voices joined the chorus to become so deafeningly loud, thanks to the Indianapolis Star's reporting, that the story could no longer be contained.

"In order to [tell the story] what became really important to us was to find all of the key people at the right moment in the in the chain of the takedown," Bonni told Digital Spy.

"It became very important for us structurally, to be able to throw to those voices every time, so the viewers can understand how characters were responsible for blowing this up, for putting Nassar behind bars but more importantly, blowing the lid off of the abuse."

Photo credit: Getty Images

Related: How Simone Biles and the Fierce Five gymnasts fit into Athlete A's story

This structure is what puts Athlete A heads above other true-crime documentaries. The survivors are the story, as are the journalists who with dogged determination refused to stop at just Larry Nassar, but take down USAG's president Steve Penny, too.

"As soon as we started thinking about researching the story we thought, well we have to get the IndyStar on board because they were really the spark that led to the ignition of this huge fire," Jon added. By starting at the spark and moving through the story chronologically, Athlete A becomes more than just a documentary detailing fact after fact.

Photo credit: Getty - Netflix

Instead, it becomes a narrative with drama and real stakes — the lives of these young, incredible athletes who give up their lives to an organisation only to be not only neglected but abused. And still, we expect them to perform, to bring home the gold.

The "aha" moment of the documentary, when the veil is lifted and we — as an audience — see USAG for what it is when Kerri Strug wins a gold medal for America at the 1996 Olympics, competing on an injured ankle. She crawls off the mat, to cheers and applause.

It is truly horrifying to watch, and so emblematic of the culture of abuse at USAG. "The focus for us became: how could you have a series of adults in charge of an organisation (that basically is made up of minors) get a report like that [of sexual abuse] and not act immediately.

Photo credit: Netflix

"That became something very important to spotlight because when organisations from the top down are not setting examples for how they run their policies, and, frankly, behave in the light [of accusations like that]. For us, it was very much about the adults that let [Nassar] succeed. And Steve Penny was at the helm [of USAG] at that time, and so he became a symbol of all of these other adults who didn't do the right thing," Jon said.

Between the journalists and the survivors, Larry Nassar's downfall seemed inevitable. But we all know there's no such thing as the inevitable when it comes to proving sexual assault against someone with so much power.

In Athlete A, Rachel Denhollander says she knew that if they didn't get the right investigator and prosecutor, the whole case could collapse. And as such, Bonni wanted to highlight Detective Lieutenant Andrea Munford, and Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis.

Photo credit: Astrid Stawiarz - Getty Images

Bonni explained: "Angela is sort of the unsung hero of that part of the story. It's not just that she was a strong prosecutor, which she was, she was also a woman and a creative thinker, and she was thinking about the healing alongside the legal case."

Understanding of duality — healing and prosecution, storytelling and empathy, survivors and journalists — sets Athlete A apart from so many other true-crime documentaries. It presents Nassar not as a lone monster hiding in the shadows, but as a man who knowingly used an environment ready to be taken advantage of, and was permitted to do so by those in charge.

Photo credit: Netflix

Moreover, Athlete A presents the survivors not as pieces of a story, where their trauma is the only important aspect, but as the story itself. Their strength, their vulnerability, and their voices are what propels the film forward.

There is a sensitivity to the documentary, a gentleness to its gaze. In spite of the horrific details divulged, it isn't graphic. It isn't with a morbid curiosity that you're compelled to keep watching, but rather with hope and a thirst for justice for these young women on whose shoulders we place so much.

Photo credit: Alex Wong - Getty Images

As Boni says: "It's sort of like a looking through the looking glass experience in the film where this loved Olympic sport we all look forward to every four years, all of a sudden you're looking at gymnasts running down that runway towards the vault with a completely different insight and feeling beyond the heroism.

"Of course, nothing can take away from these amazing athletes and their heroism, because that exists. But when you watch it with the lens of what was going on behind the scenes, it's very hard to not feel, you know, deep sadness and culpability."

Athlete A is available to watch now on Netflix

Rape Crisis England and Wales works towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct. If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.

Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.

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