As #MeToo reckons with the long-reigning patriarchy and reveals more abusive behavior by men (and some women) in positions of power and influence, more films have shed light on the sometimes decades-long abuses and the effects on victims and on society at large. Documentaries about Roger Ailes, Harvey Weinstein, and Michael Jackson bring focus to their victims and help to force a national and international dialogue over how Hollywood, media, and our culture have allowed these men to hold power and manipulate those who come within their circle, and the complacency and culpability of the people that knew and did nothing. At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal positions itself to be yet another documentary dealing with the same topics, and then proves itself to be so much more.
At the Heart of Gold covers the USA Gymnastics’ team doctor Larry Nassar’s history of sexual abuse of girls and young women, often under the noses of coaches, parents, and the USAG. It frames Nassar’s abuse in the context of the degree of regimentation required by the coaches and managers within gymnastics, and how Nassar positioned himself as the “nice guy” in a group of not-so-nice people in order to groom girls for sexual violation. Nassar is indeed textbook, as many of the girls and women he abused point out: he was the friendly doctor, the man who was kind and gentle in a world where girls’ bodies are routinely put through a massive amount of punishment and where coaches are demanding, if not also vicious and derogatory. Nassar’s pattern of abuse, the way the girls were manipulated by him and by the developing nature of gymnastics in the US, forms the basis of the film. Most poignant, however, is how the narrative focuses not only on Nassar’s behavior but sets it within the context of the world of the Olympics and the business of sports, as the film seeks to understand how he managed to get away with it for so long.
That’s a question that at times flummoxes even the subjects of the documentary. Director Erin Lee Carr interviews a multitude of victims (and occasionally their mothers), ranging from women who were gymnasts in the 1990s to Nassar’s most recent, still adolescent victims. All of them remark on the way that they were groomed and on the excuses made for Nassar by the powers that be. Both they and their mothers address the overarching issue of how something like this could go on for so long, so consistently, and never be addressed.
The answer is disturbing but perhaps not shocking in a culture now becoming used to these stories of monstrous behavior under the guise of trust. At the Heart of Gold details a pattern of protectionism, gaslighting, and power differentials that place these girls in a position where they barely understand what’s happening to them. One girl remarks on how female gymnasts are used to having their bodies touched, adjusted, and manipulated by adults, and how at the ages many of them were when the abuse began (some as young as six), they either didn’t know what was happening, were not believed or were silenced when they did speak about it, or, most distressingly, had their parents present the whole time. Many didn’t even reckon with Nassar’s violations until he was finally arrested, coming to terms with their own abuse years after the fact. But the film provides them space to finally speak, to reckon with what has happened.
There is much that is damning about At the Heart of Gold. The callousness of the coaches, the University of Michigan (for whom Nassar worked), and the USAG; the gaslighting of the victims to a point where they were ashamed and apologetic for what someone else did to them; the disbelieving parents and children who couldn’t imagine that someone as nice and gentle as Larry could possibly be molesting them, all are given adequate attention as the film builds to the inevitable conclusion. But its true power is in the voice that it gives to the victims in extensive interviews, conversations, and in their court appearances, prizing their narratives and their experiences over the man who abused them. There is no luridness here, no re-enactments of abuse, no banal fascination with Nassar’s monstrosity. Nassar himself hardly speaks in the film, shown almost entirely in old videos, pictures, and his court appearance, his voice drowned out and silenced by the girls he hurt. The result is a story not about a man who did things to girls, but about girls who suffered and were silenced and now can speak, as they tell how they were abused not just by Nassar himself but by an entire system and culture meant to protect men like him. It is a stark reminder of their strength and their support of one another, as they address their anger and their pain to the man who caused it and force him and the culture that protects him to finally hear them.
At the Heart of Gold is an essential documentary not because it tells a story we already know, but because it carefully and consistently (and passionately) provides a catharsis for those who have been hurt, valuing them both for their strength in coming forward while acknowledging that they never should have had to be strong at all. It is a difficult, harrowing watch, but a clear reminder of what we’re fighting for and why we must keep fighting: so that no girl, teenager, or woman should ever have to say “me too” again.
At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal is now showing at the Tribeca Film Festival. It will appear on HBO on May 6.
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Categories: Movie Review