Review: ‘Athlete A,’ starring Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher, Steve Berta, Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Jennifer Sey

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maggie Nichols in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Athlete A”

Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk

Culture Representation: The documentary “Athlete A” interviews an all-white group of people to discuss how officials and survivors handled the crimes of convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, the disgraced former doctor who worked for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

Culture Clash: The documentary examines how Nassar’s crimes were actively covered up by officials and how a team of Indianapolis Star investigative reporters exposed the Nassar scandal in 2016.

Culture Audience: “Athlete A” will appeal primarily to people who like true-crime documentaries, but the movie doesn’t uncover anything new and leaves out some important details.

Rachael Denhollander in “Athlete A” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

There will be inevitable comparisons of Netflix’s 2020 documentary film “Athlete A” (directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk) and HBO’s 2019 documentary film “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” (directed by Erin Lee Carr), because both documentaries essentially cover the same topic. Neither film uncovers anything new about the 2016 scandal that exposed Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse of hundreds of female patients while he worked as a doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. “Athlete A” takes a different angle from “At the Heart of Gold” by giving more of a spotlight to the Indianapolis Star newspaper team that broke the story.

“Athlete A” gets its title from the alias that was given to gymnast Maggie Nichols when she filed a formal complaint with USA Gymnastics in 2015 to report that Nassar had sexually abused her numerous times, in the guise of administering “medical examinations.” Nichols’ complaint was one of several that USA Gymnastics actively covered up and did not report to police. Michigan State University also did the same thing when it received numerous sexual-abuse complaints about Nassar, whose known abuse spanned more than 20 years.

Maggie Nichols is among the survivors of Nassar’s abuse who are interviewed in “Athlete A,” which also interviews former gymnasts Rachael Denhollander, Jessica Howard and Jamie Dantzscher, who are also survivors of Nassar’s abuse. “Athlete A,” which focuses more on how the scandal went public, has a much smaller number of people interviewed, compared to “At the Heart of Gold,” which has a broader look at the aftermath of the scandal. And ultimately, taking a much narrower view might be why “Athlete A” provides a less complete picture than “At the Heart of Gold.”

The Nassar scandal exposed the culture of cover-ups, abuse, silence and intimidation that many female gymnasts (who are usually underage when the abuse starts) have had to endure in their quest for athletic glory. Several media outlets and documentaries have already done in-depth investigations and reported their findings of the Nassar scandal, but the Indianapolis Star was the first to break the story.

“Athlete A” gives a lot of screen time to the Indianapolis Star team members who broke the story: investigations editor Steve Berta and investigative reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans. They all give a step-by-step replay of how they uncovered how deep the scandal was and how far back the cover-ups were, as more and more women started coming forward to the Indianapolis Star with their Nassar horror stories.

Berta says of the culture of female gymnastics: “What the culture was like was new to me, and we were sort of plunged into it.” Kwiatkowski explains that the Indianapolis Star (which is nicknamed the Indy Star) somewhat stumbled onto the Nassar story when the newspaper was investigating a broader story on why people don’t report sexual abuse in schools.

The Indianapolis Star got a tip to look into USA Gymnastics, and that led the reporters down the path to find out about Nassar’s sex crimes and what officials did to cover up the complaints against him. (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.)

Curiously, “Athlete A” paints an incomplete picture by focusing mostly on USA Gymnastics as the chief perpetrator of the cover-ups, and the documentary largely ignores Michigan State University’s similar cover-ups of Nassar’s crimes. Several officials from USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University have since been fired or have resigned because of the Nassar scandal. Many of these disgraced officials are facing criminal and/or civil cases because of their involvement in the scandal.

As many people who are familiar with the scandal already know, USA Gymnastics had a policy to not report a sexual-abuse claim to the police unless the alleged victim, the alleged victim’s parents and/or an eyewitness signed the complaint. Most of the accusers were underage children, so this policy goes against most U.S. state laws that require companies and organizations to report complaints of underage sexual abuse to police.

Nassar certainly wasn’t the only one to be accused, and when his sex crimes were exposed, the media also uncovered that over a period of 10 years, USA Gymnastics had received sexual-abuse complaints against approximately 54 coaches (most of the crimes were against underage girls), but those complaints were never reported to police. USA Gymnastics often transferred many of those coaches to other locations.

Steven Penny Jr., who was president/CEO of USA Gymnastics from 2005 to 2017, is portrayed in “Athlete A” as the king of the Nassar cover-ups. The documentary includes some brief commentary about him, including people who say that Penny abused his power and that his marketing background caused him to give more priority to image and sponsorship deals for USA Gymnastics instead of the safety and well-being of the athletes.

Berta says, “They [USA Gymnastics] were so busy trying to sell that brand that they didn’t have time for these girls.” The documentary also includes archival news footage of Penny’s pathetic appearance in a 2018 U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing, when he invoked the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution in his refusal to answer any questions.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols, the parents of Maggie Nichols, say in “Athlete A” interviews that they had trusted Penny when he told them that USA Gymnastics would be handling Maggie’s sexual-abuse complaints against Nassar. The Nicholas parents say that when Sarah Jantzi, Maggie’s coach at the time, first reported the abuse to USA Gymnastics in 2015, the company ordered the Nichols parents and Jantzi not to go to the police and were told that the matter was going to be handled internally by USA Gymnastics.

A human-resources consultant hired by USA Gymnastics interviewed Maggie, but when her parents followed up to find out the status of the investigation, they were stonewalled by USA Gymnastics and told that they couldn’t reveal any details because it was an ongoing investigation. Meanwhile, Nassar continued to be a USA Gymnastics doctor, and several gymnasts later testified that he abused them before, during and after the 2016 Olympics.

Maggie Nichols eventually went public in 2018 about how Nassar abused her. But her experience is strikingly similar to others who survived his abuse. (Nassar is believed to have sexually abused at least 500 female patients.) All of his survivors, and even people who weren’t abused by Nassar, say that he easily fooled people into thinking he was the “nice guy” in a sea of gymnastic coaches and officials who were tough and openly abusive to athletes.

If people are wondering why all these parents of underage kids didn’t take it upon themselves go to the police after finding out about the abuse, it’s explained in “Athlete A” (and other documentaries/news reports about the Nassar scandal) that USA Gymnastics had the power to decide who would be selected to go to the Olympics. These parents naïvely trusted that USA Gymnastics would do the right thing in handling the abuse complaints, but there was also fear of upsetting Penny and other people at the top who could make or break their daughters’ Olympic dreams.

Gina Nichols and John Nichols believe that Maggie was blackballed from being on the Olympic team because she was a “whistleblower.” Maggie was a bronze medalist at the 2014 USA Gymnastics National Championships and a silver medalist at the 2015 USA Gymnastics National Championships. She was considered a top contender to be chosen for the USA Gymnastics women’s team for the 2016 Olympics.

Despite a having a knee injury at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, Maggie performed well, but didn’t make the Olympic team, while some Nationals team alternates were chosen instead. Gina Nichols and John Nichols say in the documentary that they saw signs that USA Gymnastics had blackballed them because the organization treated them differently after Maggie’s abuse was reported to USA Gymnastics, but the complaint against Nassar hadn’t been made public yet.

After the abuse was reported, Gina Nichols and John Nichols say that at the 2016 Olympic tryouts, they didn’t have reserved seats and there weren’t TV cameras following them, as there normally would have been for all the other USA Gymnastics televised events where star gymnast Maggie previously participated. The Nichols parents don’t come right out and accuse anyone specific for causing this blatant snubbing, but it’s obvious that they believe several people’s claims that Penny demanded it. The good news is that Maggie went on to achieve gymnastic championships in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, while she was a student at the University of Oklahoma.

“Athlete A” includes archival video footage of Denhollander being interviewed in 2016 by the Indianapolis Star when she came forward to expose Nassar, 16 years after he abused her. She says at one point: “I wish I had dealt with it 16 years ago. I don’t think I could’ve dealt with it, but I can now.”

The documentary also shows the toll that this abuse took on the survivors, many of whom were ridiculed and not believed when they first came forward. Denhollander, who looks painfully thin in her 2016 interview with the Indianapolis Star, says that she had trouble eating because of all the stress. Dantzscher, who was on the USA Olympics team in 2000, says that gymnastics was her “first love,” but she tearfully admits that it took her years to be proud to be an Olympian because Nassar abused her at the Olympics and she associated the Olympics with the shame of the abuse.

“Athlete A” also delves into the history of women’s gymnastics to explain how it went from being a sport that had mostly regular-sized adult women prior to the 1960s but it eventually changed into a sport dominated by underage girls, and a height of 5’4″ was considered “tall” for female gymnasts. This “little girl” aesthetic for female gymnasts coincided with the rise of Romanian gymnastic coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi, a husband-and-wife duo whose Karolyi Ranch training facility in Texas was where Nassar committed a lot of his sexual abuse.

Beginning with Russian gold-medalist gymnast Olga Korbut at the 1972 Olympics and especially with Romanian gold-medalist gymnast Nadia Comăneci at the 1976 Olympics, the trend moved in the direction of underage, very petite girls being pushed to compete in gymnastics at the Olympics. Comăneci was only 14 when she became a gold medalist at the 1976 Olympics. Her victory made her coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi highly in demand to train female gymnasts.

In 1981, the Károlyis defected to the United States with their choreographer Geza Poszar, who is interviewed in “Athlete A.” The Károlyis also went on to coach Olympic gold-medalists gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. “Athlete A” spends a little too much time going off-topic by rehashing the Olympic victories of Comăneci, Retton and Strug. These gymnasts had nothing to do with Nassar.

Poszar says that the Károlyis’ method of working with gymnasts was “total control over the girls.” He says that Károlyis (and coaches just like them) often abuse the gymnasts verbally, emotionally and physically. It was common for the gymnasts to be slapped and be told that they were fat animals, says Poszar. That type of abuse was “acceptable” in his native Romania, he says, and it apparently was acceptable in the United States too.

Károlyi Ranch, a training facility near Hunstville, Texas, closed in 2018. The Károlyis are no longer USA Gymnastics coaches (Béla retired in 1997, while Márta retired in 2016), and they have both been sued for being part of the Nassar cover-up. “Athlete A” includes a clip from a videotaped deposition of Márta Károlyi admitting that she knew about complaints of Nassar’s abuse that was happening at the ranch.

People familiar with Károlyi Ranch describe it as an oppressive, isolated compound where parents weren’t allowed to visit, gymnasts were forbidden to call people outside the ranch (where cell-phone reception was difficult anyway), and people were punished for reporting abuse. The Károlyis, just like everyone else accused of covering up for Nassar, are not interviewed in “Athlete A.”

Giving her perspective on coaching techniques is former U.S. Nationals Team gymnast is Jennifer Sey, author of the 2008 memoir “Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams.” Sey, who competed as a gymnast in the 1970s and 1980s, says that coaching methods for female gymnasts haven’t changed much over the years: “You could be as cruel as you needed to be to get what you needed out of your athletes.”

Sey adds, “The line between tough coaching and abuse gets blurred.” She and other people in the documentary (including Dantzscher) mention something that’s commonly known in the gymnastics world: Gymnasts are often forced to compete with serious injuries, including fractured or broken bones. As an example, “Athlete A” shows Strug’s 1996 Olympic victory, which happened despite her severely injuring her ankle during the last stretch of the Olympic match.

Tracee Talavera, who was on the USA Women’s Gymnastics team at the 1984 Olympics, says she remembers how the Olympic gymnasts from Eastern Europe always looked scared and they never looked happy. Mike Jacki, who was president of USA Gymnastics from 1983 to 1994, adds his perspective, by saying that the popularity of Mary Lou Retton and more American female gymnasts starting to win at the Olympics, was the start of USA Gymnastics becoming a bigger business.

“Athlete A” clearly discusses Olympic gymnasts from the 1970s and 1980s, as a way to put into context the culture of abuse that enabled Nassar. But this detour into the history of female gymnastics ultimately takes up too much time in the documentary, which should have kept its focus on the Nassar cases.

And for a documentary about the investigation of a sexual abuser who had hundreds of victims, “Athlete A” has a surprising scarcity of interviews from people in the fields of law and law enforcement. Only one personal attorney is interviewed: John Manly, who is Dantzcher’s lawyer. From law enforcement, Michigan State University Police detective lieutenant Andrea Munford and Michigan state assistant attorney Angela Povilaitis are interviewed, and they describe their involvements in the Nassar case. (Again, nothing new is revealed here.)

“Athlete A” also includes the expected news archival footage of the survivor impact statements that were read during Nassar’s 2018 sentencing hearings, after he pleaded guilty to numerous charges. Denhollander and Dantzscher were among the survivors who read their statements while a shamed Nassar sat in the courtroom. Maggie Nichols did not attend these hearings, but her mother Gina read Maggie’s statement in court. “Athlete A” does not have interviews with Nassar’s most famous survivors, including Olympic gold-medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and McKayla Maroney.

Former USA Gymnastics president/CEO Penny was arrested in 2018 on charges of  evidence tampering. His criminal case is pending, as of this writing. Video footage of his arrest is included in “Athlete A.”

But in an apparent myopic zeal to make Penny look like the top evil overlord of covering up for Nassar, “Athlete A” oversimplifies and overlooks the fact that a cover-up of this magnitude and length wasn’t just orchestrated by mainly one person. “Athlete A” fails to mention two of the toxic enablers who were given some scrutiny in “At the Heart of Gold”: John Geddert (former USA Gymnastics coach) and Kathie Klages (former Michigan State University gymnastics coach). Geddert is under criminal investigation, as of this writing. In February 2020, Klages was convicted of two counts (one felony and one misdemeanor) of lying to police.

There have been other people who’ve been accused of actively covering up for Nassar’s crimes, including former Michigan State University president Lou Anna Simon, who resigned in 2018. In 2019, Simon was charged with lying to the police, but in May 2020, those charges were dismissed. In 2018, Scott Blackmun resigned as CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. That same year, Alan Ashley was fired as U.S. Olympic Committee chief of sport performance over his involvement in the Nassar scandal. Simon, Blackmun and Ashley are not mentioned in “Athlete A” or in “At the Heart of Gold.”

“Athlete A'” does mention Rhonda Faehn, who was a USA Gymnastics vice president at the time that Maggie Nichols filed her complaint against Nassar, but Faehn did not go to police with the complaint. In yet another example of omitting information, “Athlete A” never mentions what happened to Faehn: She testified against Nassar in 2018 in grand-jury proceedings, then she was hired by the University of Michigan in 2019 (and then fired after one day, due to public backlash), and later that year, Faehn was given a temporary job as an international team coach at Waverley Gymnastics Centre in Australia.

“Athlete A” certainly has good intentions to put the spotlight on the serious issue of abuse, as it pertains to American female gymnasts. However, the documentary ultimately just recycles information that other people already reported. The documentary’s interviews are compelling, but the filmmakers’ lack of original investigative reporting and omission of crucial details are ultimately a letdown for this important subject matter.

Netflix premiere “Athlete A” on May 24, 2020.

Review: ‘Tape,’ starring Isabelle Fuhrman, Annarosa Mudd and Tarek Bishara

April 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Isabelle Fuhrman in “Tape” (Photo courtesy of Full Moon Films)

“Tape”

Directed by Deborah Kampmeier 

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City’s modern-day community of aspiring actors, the sexual-misconduct drama “Tape” has a cast with all of the main characters as white and middle-class, with some African American and Latino characters in small speaking roles.

Culture Clash: An aspiring actress who went through a harrowing sexual experience with a sleazy director plans to get revenge on him by exposing his misdeeds.

Culture Audience: “Tape” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in #MeToo stories, but the movie fails the #MeToo movement by having a completely ludicrous and unrealistic ending.

Annarosa Mudd in “Tape” (Photo courtesy of Full Moon Films)

“Tape” writer/director Deborah Kampmeier says that the movie is based on the real-life #MeToo experience of a friend of hers. However, in telling this story and making it into a movie, Kampmeier ditches the realism in the last 15 minutes and turns it into a melodramatic, ridiculous mess that is in no way believable and cheapens the message that the film is trying to convey. There are tacky Lifetime movies that have more realistic endings than “Tape.”

The beginning of “Tape” starts out promising enough, because it looks like it’s going to be an edgy independent drama about a traumatized woman seeking some kind of self-empowerment by getting revenge on the person who has harmed her. The opening scene is very bloody and graphic, as it shows a woman in her 20s  (played by Annarosa Mudd) in her bathroom, putting a ball piercing in the middle of her tongue and then cutting her wrists with a razor blade. She then shaves off most of her long, dark hair until she has a buzz cut. And she also straps on a hidden camera around her abdomen.

What is going on with her? Viewers don’t find out her name—Rosa Terrano—until about midway through the story when she goes to one of her social-media accounts. Until then, she wears all black and sunglasses, as she lurks around a shabby studio that’s being used for auditions. At one of the auditions, she hangs out in the waiting room with all the other young women who are there.

Rosa stands out from the rest of the auditioners, because they’re all long-haired brunettes with a bright-eyed wholesome look, while Rosa looks like a mopey skinhead who’s on her way to a Marilyn Manson concert. At the audition, a 15-year-old girl admits she isn’t on the audition list. She’s crushed when she finds out that she won’t get a chance because she didn’t follow the emailed instructions to get on the list. One of the auditioners is friendly and empathetic Pearl Osborne (played by Isabelle Fuhrman), who comforts the girl before she goes into the audition room.

During her audition, Pearl is asked by the director Lux St. Seguin (played by Tarek Bishara), who’s in the room with a female assistant or casting agent, why Pearl thinks she’s the perfect candidate for the project, which is a reality show. Pearl answers that she’s talented, but she admits she needs to market herself better. It’s the movie’s not-so-subtle way of showing that Pearl lacks confidence and is therefore a vulnerable target for a sexual predator.

After her audition, Rosa and Pearl have a brief conversation in the waiting room, where they exchange pleasantries. Rosa tells Pearl that she auditioned with a monologue from Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.” Pearl says she doesn’t know that play, but she knows director Julie Taymor’s 1999 movie adaption “Titus.” Pearl says she remembers the movie has a scene with a woman who is raped and then mutilated by her rapists, by cutting out her tongue and dismembering her hands so she won’t report the crime. The obvious parallel is how Rosa mutilated herself in the beginning of the story.

For the vast majority of the movie, Rosa plays private detective, by following Pearl—Rosa got Pearl’s home address by taking a photo of the sign-in list at the audition—and videotaping Pearl without her knowledge. This is a plot hole for the movie, because out of all of the women who auditioned for Lux that day, how does Rosa know that Pearl is going to be Lux’s next victim? Shouldn’t Rosa be secretly following Lux instead?

Pearl gets a callback for the auditions, and Rosa just happens to be there too, and she makes an excuse for not going into the audition room. However, Lux sees Rosa hanging around outside and asks if he knows her. Based on Rosa’s reaction, she definitely knows him, but she doesn’t want him to recognize her.

Pearl is then seen alone at a dining table, where she tearfully speaks to her mother by phone and expresses her frustrations and self-doubt over constantly being rejected for various reasons when she goes to auditions. After the phone call, Pearl goes into the bathroom and vomits up what she just ate, and then looks in the mirror and practices what she hopes will be her Academy Awards speech someday.

It’s one of the best scenes in the movie because Fuhrman (who’s by far the best actor in the cast) handles it very realistically. What’s chilling about the scene is that there are countless aspiring actresses who’ve probably done the exact same thing. Although it’s possible for male actors to develop eating disorders over body insecurities, more often than not, bulimics are female. Meanwhile, as this is taking place, Rosa is seated at an outdoor table in Times Square looking on a computer tablet at all the video footage that she has of Pearl.

It isn’t long before Rosa, once again lurking outside the audition studio, sees Pearl again. Pearl is in tears because she didn’t make the cut in the latest round of auditions. However, Lux the director approaches Pearl on the street before she walks away to tell her that she’s too special to be in a reality show. And he has good news for her: She would be perfect for his “protégée program,” where he can work one-on-one with her to help her break into the business. Of course, Rosa is standing close enough to catch all of this on her hidden camera.

From there, Rosa prepares to secretly video record what happens during Lux’s “private acting session” with Pearl. Rosa bribes a guy who does security for a run-down warehouse-styled studio area to enter one of the studios and plant hidden cameras in there. One of the cameras she plants in a light switch, and another camera she plants in a desk clock. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Rosa has been there before and knows exactly what’s going to happen to Pearl.

Lux is as sleazy as you think he might be. He’s got a video camera set up in the middle of the room, whose few furnishings include a bed, and it’s very easy to see how this “private acting session” is going to go. “Tape” shows that Lux is not a Harvey Weinstein-type bully but someone who’s a smooth-talking manipulator, who keeps telling his victims that they’ll be “empowered” by letting go of their sexual inhibitions with him. He tells Pearl that she’s free to go any time she wants, but then he warns her that she’ll just be going back to her frustrating existence as an out-of-of work, aspiring actress, and he can change her life for  the better if she just does what he suggests.

He also keeps repeating that acting in “the real world” requires actions that “aren’t for the meek” and are the opposite of what’s taught in formal acting classes. And he constantly mentions that almost every famous actress has done nudity and sex scenes. It progresses to the point where he gets completely naked and tells Pearl that in order to “get real” in the nude scene that he wants to film of her, he has to have sex with her on camera.

Pearl is extremely nervous and uncertain, but in his attempt to wear her down, he shows her the sex scene that Halle Berry did in “Monster’s Ball” to prove that actresses can win an Oscar for doing an explicit sex scene in a movie. He also tells her that sex scenes in movies that win Oscars are not simulated but real. It’s impossible to know how many “casting couch” situations have happened where aspiring actresses have been told the same things by predatory people in the industry, but “Tape” capably demonstrates that there are plenty of vulnerable and desperate people who will be targets for this type of manipulation.

Meanwhile, Rosa is outside a nearby building and watching and recording all of this hidden camera footage happening live. She has the choice to intervene or not. Does she put a stop to what’s going on? And what exactly does she plan to do with the video footage? Those questions are answered in the movie, which should have ended by answering those questions.

But no, the last 15 minutes of the movie shift into such a wildly different direction and tone—so much so that this plot twist seems like it was meant for another film altogether. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that it completely goes against Rosa’s meticulous planning that she had in the previous majority of the story.

What Rosa does at the end of the film is so poorly thought-out, and the reactions of the people around her are so mind-numbingly unrealistic, that it makes “Tape” a disappointing, failed attempt at being an important feminist movie. “Tape” wants desperately to become a classic film for the #MeToo era, but the movie’s dumb ending means that “Tape” won’t even register as a footnote.

Full Moon Films released “Tape” through a Crowdcast virtual theatrical release on March 26, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release is on April 10, 2020.