After watching Netflix’s searing documentary, Athlete A, you will never be able to look at the Olympics the same way ever again. When we see young men and women competing at the Olympics every two years, there are many profiles about the athletes that we root for. We cheer on their athleticism and patriotism, but Athlete A exposes in terrifying detail how Larry Nassar was able to continue his reign of abuse on dozens of young women. Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk didn’t anticipate how high up the story would go.
Cohen and Shenk were in familiar territory since they directed another story about sexual abuse in Netflix’s gut-wrenching Audrie & Daisy. I highly recommend viewing that film if you have the constitution to do so. The directors lay out everything so clearly that you feel like you are getting all of the information. A lot of docs, especially one with so many people and so many timelines, feel cluttered. Athlete A has a clarity that feels like it was waiting for the exact moment to be released.
The film delves into the dark history of the world of gymnastics, so Cohen and Shenk reveal how easy it was for dubious men in power to take advantage of these young women. This all didn’t happen coincidentally. Ultimately, the documentary is a call to action and an extension of the Me Too movement. The film gives survivors center stage to tell their stories on their terms without fear of the men who harmed them.
Awards Daily: One of your last films, Audrie & Daisy, is very devastating, and both it and Athlete A are about assault. That one starts in a small town and kind of erupts on a national scale. This film exposes the truth of something that happened on a global stage. Why did you want to revisit this?
Bonni Cohen: You used the word ‘want’…
AD: You’re right. Maybe why did you feel compelled to tell this particular story?
Jon Shenk: That’s a great question and that’s the question we asked ourselves when we heard this story. We met Jen Sey, who also produced the film, and she was a US National Champion and wrote a book on the subject. The bottom line of what drew us back into this world of a film centered on sexual abuse, we thought this story had a really amazing hopeful quality to it. These journalists, along with the survivors and the legal teams and the police formed this amazing team that showed the world how this could be undone. How you could take a wrong and make it a right.
JS: While there are a lot of painful steps to get there and a lot of pushback from the US Gymnastic Federation, it was this amazing survivor story in our mind. If we could tell it from that perspective and get access to those stories and give these women a platform, we thought we could have a powerful film.
AD: It’s interesting that you bring up the press because I kept thinking about how the press has been under attack for the last five years. How did you want to show that thorough investigative work?
BC: That’s one hundred percent a reason why we wanted to do this. We saw an opportunity much like how Tom McCarthy did in Spotlight and the Boston Globe reporters. These guys were such a tenacious investigative team. They didn’t have high budgets and they didn’t have the resources that the New York Times or Washington Post have. They took the tiger by the tail and ran with it. They pulled at this string and it unlocked more and more what was wrong with this institution. It was just incredible to us that if they hadn’t written that story in Georgia that exposed the policy inside USA Gymnastics and how they report sexual assault…if they had not written that story, the first three women wouldn’t have come forward and started to reveal [Larry] Nassar. Making that film about those journalists when journalism is under attack, we wanted to frame the film in that way. To highlight the necessity and the good work.
AD: There’s a part near the end where someone mentions taking down the head of an organization. Nassar was such a big perpetrator of a lot of violence, but the fact that it went that high up is absolutely chilling.
AD: I enjoyed how the film has a simple approach. It’s not overly produced and there aren’t a lot of frills around it. You allow these women to share their experiences.
BC: That’s very satisfying that you think that.
JS: Simple as opposed to lurid?
JS: Bonni and I, like everybody, get the appeal of a true crime drama or the procedural drama of how the true crime of a drama can be a big audience hook. You see something quite special take place. The reporters make the initial article and then the baton gets passed to the survivors who show up first in small numbers and then big numbers. And then the baton is passed to this female cop who is a total badass and then a female prosecutor who takes no prisoners. We felt like there was incredible drama inherent in the simple facts, you know?
JS: From a very early stage, Bonni and I thought that we had to simply tell this incredible relay race. The monkey wrench, a little bit, was Maggie Nichols story. She reported Nassar inside USA Gymnastics and had this slightly different timelines to her story. It overlapped the Indianapolis Star story so we went about telling that story linear way and let the story tell us where they wanted us to find each other. We wrestled a lot. We had a murder board up to show the timeline and the connections that everyone had. We kind of struggling against the complexity all along so it’s heartening to hear that you found it so simple. We wanted the audience to have that basic momentum building.
BC: There are so many complexities to the story, especially the history of gymnastics like what was going on in Eastern Europe and what was imported to the United States in terms of coaching and abusive styles. We were constantly thinking about what information would the audience need to go into the next part of the story so you always have the depth of context. We wrestled that a lot–what to parse out in history that would be relevant to a contemporary story. From a structural perspective, that was some heavy lifting with our editor, Don Bernier.
AD: I love how the film goes into the past. I would have never pieced together that a Romanian gym coach would have such an impact on things in the United States. All that stuff blew my mind, because every time we watch the Olympics, commentators make these off the cuff remarks about how small they are or how young these girls look. We could easily just nab at the history and find a lot of damning stuff.
AD: What was the most surprising thing you discovered along the way?
BC: Probably the most shocking thing, which, in retrospect, is not shocking at all given the state of our country, is when you start to to dive into this, you realize there’s a system that was set up for this organization to succeed. Whether it was USA Gymnastics alone or a larger Olympics organization whereby abuses were baked in to the way they handled athletes. Those abuses were accepted over time as something that was “necessary” and those abuses–both psychological and physical–really laid a bed for someone like Nassar to succeed. As we peel back the layers on the Nassar story and go into the history, we saw a structural that was totally corrupt. We have all been a party to it, since we watch the Olympics every four years and happily glory in the fact that these incredible athletes do these incredible things. To be surprised by this system and turn a blind eye to that abuse was shocking. We as a country allowed this to the best of the best athletes that we have to offer to the world.
AD: It’s interesting that you bring up how we watch the Olympics, because you show Kerri Strug doing that triumphant second vault from 1996. I remember watching that so vividly and when I watched Athlete A, I leapt up from the couch because her coach was Béla Károlyi. It kind of changed my perspective of that moment.
BC: It’s wild because we have those moments deep in our memory of these exalted moments of Olympic memory. Whether it’s Michael Phelps or Greg Louganis. It’s like watching something that’s impossible to believe. When you start to turn a new lens on that moment, which is what Jen Sey does with that Kerri Strug vault, you think did she really have a choice to run down that runway on a broken ankle? When you ask those questions and wonder about what was being of children–they’re basically children–you have to rethink that glory. It’s really tough, because there are certainly two ways to look at it. It’s the point of the film to open up that second perspective.
JS: One thing that was a big of an epiphany for Bonni and me was there was something inherently awesome about watching Americans at the Olympic games. We ask ourselves why we do that, and an answer for me is that it reminds you what is possible. Look at what these people can do, so what can I do with my life? We started thinking, in a way, all these athletes rising up together to take on a system–and ultimately Nassar and the system– is another way of heroism that is breathtaking. Who has the guts to tell their story that is so personal and potentially humiliating that victims can feel. That was one thing that really inspired us. This is a different way of excelling.
AD: Rachael Denhollander reminds that that she was reluctant to come forward because she knows victims are not believed and they are sometimes ridiculed for coming forward. Even after the Me Too movement and all of these stories have been told, a shameful majority of our society goes after these women. They have nowhere to turn, especially when they are so young and they are already going through so much physically and emotionally from the sport and growing up.
BC: She interestingly makes that statement which really is profound and applicable to many, many survivors that we have spoken to. What’s wild is that she spent over a decade putting this case together and waiting for the right moment to jump. She knew that if she didn’t have all her ducks in a row, it wouldn’t be worth it since survivors aren’t believed. If she collected all the medical data and talked to more survivors and then seeing that the Indianapolis Star released a story on the crazy policies that USA Gymnastics had about sexual assault abuse and the reporting of them, she knew she could come forward. That is just brilliant. She waited for the just right situation so nobody could do that to her.
Athlete A is available on Netflix.