Erin Lee Carr’s At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal is the kind of true crime we need to see. The film, which premiered earlier this month at Tribeca and is now streaming on HBO, documents— primarily through victim testimony— the serial sexual abuse perpetrated by Larry Nassar, the infamous longtime USA Gymnastics doctor. Nassar’s victims were young girls and women at the time of the assaults, which he passed off as a signature “medical technique” during appointments. Top-class gymnasts begin their careers at a very young age. Many were too young to understand what was happening. Many of the attacks happened while the girl’s parents sat right across the room. Over the course of multiple decades, Nassar abused hundreds of athletes, including the US Olympics team as they competed on the world stage. Rachel Denhollander, the first victim to come forward with a public accusation, sparked a wave of revelations that made headlines and dislodged top leadership in the gymnastics world.
But this isn’t Nassar’s story. It’s the women’s. The victims in this story are some of the most powerful women and girls on the planet. And the first ten minutes of Carr’s documentary make sure we know that. They fly and twist through physics-defying routines. They astonish, just like they do every four years as the nation cheers them on. The grueling, militaristic training they undergo from a young age is as impressive as it is draining to watch. My fiancée, a veteran, was watching with me and commented, “It sounds like bootcamp, but forever.” The mechanism of these girls’ lives and training is so deeply controlled and exacting and the results so appreciated and treasured. It’s an intensely non-private way to grow up. Which made these girls—who can literally fly—targets for a man who made himself part of that system.
Variety’s Nick Schager called the movie “victim-populated.” That’s the right word, but it doesn’t convey the whole of the documentary’s effect. The audience is continually in the presence of the victims. Nassar’s continually visible too—but we see him through his victims’ eyes and narration. The weight of the women’s pain and their willingness to confront it is overwhelming and unrelenting and the narrative is soundly theirs.
Villains are fascinating: and it’s too easy for true crime stories to fall into the trap of leaning into that rapt hatred. To peek at the monster under the bed. Remember the viral footage of Randall Margraves, the father of three of Nassar’s victims, at Nassar’s sentencing hearing? Margraves asked for five minutes alone with “this demon;” then he asked for one minute; then he charged across the courtroom at Nassar before being restrained by multiple bailiffs. By the time that footage plays in the documentary, you almost want him to make it to Nassar’s table. It feels like the only proportionate response to the unrelenting pain playing out in front of us.
The focus of this story is not the abuser—his why, his past, his psychology—but the strength of the survivors. In one perfect moment during the impact statements, as the reader wavers, friends and relatives squeeze her shoulder and whisper over and over again “You’re so strong.” That moment is the heart of what this documentary is doing. It’s showing us a terrible and challenging reckoning with abuses that were allowed to become ordinary. And simultaneously, it’s showing the deep kind of courage that it takes to face those abuses, to be open and aware about them. To be frank and clear and honest and lay bare harm that can be too easily euphemized and downplayed.
This is the kind of blistering narrative reckoning that we need more of. To turn abstract headlines and scandal into a fierce accounting. It’s a glimpse at the highest aspirations of what the #MeToo movement could rise to: the system turned inside out and shaken, all the institutionalized safety nets for abusers laid bare and shattered, while prioritizing the dignity of the victims leading the charge.