Ewan Gleadow

Movie Review: Athlete A

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Copyright: Netflix

Breaking stories of corruption and abuse are often of public interest. Athlete A offers such a story, detailing the fallout of abuse allegations toward USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Directing pair Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen provide a detailed account of this shocking turn of events with their Netflix original documentary. Tearing down the curtain to a profession you may not give much thought to, this piece of groundbreaking investigative journalism that snowballed into a complete uncovering of a scandalously corrupt system of abuse. It’s not just an insight into the harrowing perversion of morals, but also a broader discussion of how hard these athletes train for a career that could destroy their health. 

How oblivious we can be to oppression and exploitation when it’s to do something we love is a true tragedy of working hard. Athlete A documents this well, a series of aspiring gymnasts with their sights set on Olympic stardom, putting up with horrors no person should ever have to experience. The cover-up is just as shocking as the actions at the core of this documentary. How such a beacon of professionalism can hide horrors beyond belief away from the prying eye of the public and those most concerned is a truly despicable and terrifying notion. Athlete A does a tremendous job in detailing just how difficult this was for the people involved. How so little got through to the press and public at the time is a striking moment that comes only once or twice in documentary filmmaking. Our directing pair salvage most of it for a strong conclusion to the findings of others and their interesting series of interviews.  

What Shenk and Cohen provide here is a clear understanding of believing and listening to victims of abuse. The slow-burning process of journalists pitching a story and gathering the harrowing truth, and eventually representing it in written form, is captured well. Athlete A doesn’t just detail the sexual abuse, but also the physical and mental abuse athletes were often put through. Competing with broken bones, forced into strange and dangerous weight regimentation, and horribly poor practice from the individuals placed in charge of their wellbeing.  

One thing Netflix does have in its repertoire of shoddy originals or achingly bland television shows, is a strong focus on their documentaries. Icarus and Athlete A work hand in hand with one another, two vastly different pieces that work on detailing specific sports controversies. While Icarus looks at the impact corruption leaves on the world stage, Athlete A looks at an issue closer to home than a country’s controversial doping. Instead, we’re given a ruthless and often heart wrenching account of abuse in a career path chosen by gifted individuals looking to put their talents on the world stage, and the man who blackmailed, bargained and meddled his way through them. Another great documentary from this year, one that’ll disgust and engage its audience with the horrors found in gymnastics.