April 25, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Erin Lee Carr
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.
The challenge of doing a documentary film about a high-profile scandal that’s already been covered in countless news stories is that the film really has to deliver something new and extraordinary in order to stand out from all the other stories. “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal,” although well-researched, doesn’t report anything new and surprising in its chronicle of the 2016 scandal that exposed Dr. Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of patients (many of them were underage female gymnasts) and various institutions’ cover-up and enabling of Nassar’s illegal acts, which spanned more than 20 years. (Nassar has now been stripped of his medical license. In 2017 and 2018, he received numerous prison sentences that will ensure that he will die in prison.) However, the lack of a newsworthy breakthrough in the documentary doesn’t make the film’s emotional impact any less powerful.
“At the Heart of Gold” doesn’t have new interviews with the most famous people involved in the scandal, such as abuse survivors/Olympic gold medalists Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney. The documentary also doesn’t interview any of the chief villains in the story, such as Nassar (whose manufactured “nice guy” image fooled people for years) or the officials at USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University (where Nassar also worked), who are accused of actively covering up Nassar’s sexual abuse after the crimes were reported to them. Many of these officials have lost their jobs and are involved in their own legal cases where they are facing criminal prosecution and/or civil lawsuits because of the Nassar scandal.
People interviewed for “At the Heart of Gold” are several abuse survivors—including Trinea Gonczar, Dominique Moceanu, Amanda Thomashow, Morgan McCaul—as well as a few of the survivors’ family members, plaintiff attorney Mick Grewal, Nassar attorney Shannon Smith, judge Rosemarie Aquilina, gymnastics professionals and journalists who covered the story. News reports have already revealed that Nassar’s sexual abuse, which he usually tricked his victims into believing was medical therapy, shockingly occurred on many occasions while the victims’ parents were in the same room, where they believed Nassar had been giving a routine physical exam. However, most of the abuse happened when Nassar was alone with a victim. In many cases, the abuse escalated from fondling to sexual intercourse.
As heinous as Nassar’s actions were, the documentary reiterates that the people who ignored the victims’ complaints and allowed Nassar to get away with committing sexual abuse for decades are just as responsible for these crimes. John Geddert (former USA Gymnastics coach) and Kathie Klages (former Michigan State University gymnastics coach) are repeatedly singled out in the documentary as two of the most evil enablers of Nassar. As the #MeToo movement raises awareness of how to fight sexual abusers, “At the Heart of Gold” also takes a microscope to the culture that allows people to commit these crimes. The movie serves as a warning that sexual predators are particularly enabled in industries where children are being pushed to achieve fame and glory and are frequently left alone with powerful adults in the industry who are not their parents.
The documentary does an excellent job of also pointing to the abusive treatment that many aspiring Olympic gymnasts receive early on in their training, which almost always begins when they are underage children. The gymnasts are essentially brainwashed into believing that they will be kicked out of a program if they complain about or report any illegal or inappropriate behavior from an authority figure who can derail someone’s Olympic dreams. Gymnasts are also taught not to complain about injuries (those who complain are often punished), and gymnasts are sometimes forced to perform with serious injuries, such as fractured bones.
Béla and Márta Károlyi—the husband-and-wife duo who trained Olympic gold-medalist gymnasts such as Nadia Comăneci, Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug—are portrayed as two of the chief perpetrators of this vicious mentality. The Károlyis, who used to be USA Gymnastics coaches, are not interviewed in “At the Heart of Gold,” but they have been sued for knowing about Nassar’s abuse when it was happening at the Károlyi Ranch, the couple’s remote training facility near Hunstville, Texas, that closed in 2018. (Béla retired from gymnastics coaching in 1997, while Márta retired in 2016.)
Some of the people interviewed in “At the Heart of Gold” give disturbing descriptions of the Károlyi Ranch as being a cult-like compound where communication was cut off from the outside world, and the Karolyis were treated like gods who could be merciless in their punishment. Michigan Radio/NPR Radio’s 2018 podcast “Believed” takes a more in-depth look at the Nassar scandal, but “At the Heart of Gold” makes a worthy companion piece for those who want to get the story in a documentary film.
HBO will premiere “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” on May 3, 2019.