To feel angry is to be human watching “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal,” an HBO documentary that chronicles the crimes of Dr. Larry Nassar, and the systemic myopia that enabled him to operate unchecked for years. Yet the final portion of the film provides an empowering ray of hope by putting the focus not on Nassar, but the strength exhibited by survivors of his abuse.
For anyone who needs a refresher course on the story, Nassar was an osteopathic physician who worked with the US women’s Olympic gymnastics team – “the perfect job,” as gymnastics coach Aimee Boorman notes, for a sexual predator and pedophile, interacting on a daily basis with the young girls in his charge.
As the gymnasts note, the nature of their grueling practices makes them accustomed to being touched by adults. Because Nassar was in a position of authority, he was also able to operate virtually in plain sight, with unsuspecting parents nearby.
Survivors recount Nassar’s pattern of abuse, making clear that they found it hard to believe those in authority could have been oblivious to concerns expressed about him. That includes legendary coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, who ran the training center for young Olympic hopefuls.
New York Times reporter Juliet Macur explains that Nassar was “brilliant at fooling these girls into trusting him.” Some even defended him when the allegations arose, only to later acknowledge the abuse, as more victims – including a number of famous Olympians – came forward.
Working from research by producers David Ulich and Dr. Steven Ungerleider, director Erin Lee Carr (“Mommy Dead and Dearest”) methodically details Nassar’s actions, and how they were allowed to continue for so long. Sickening as they are, it’s the unavoidable centerpiece of the story.
The film’s final section, however, becomes a forceful articulation of the #MeToo movement. The heart of that lies in the witness statements, which are presented at considerable length, as understandably wary young women wary found their voices – Judge Rosemarie Aqualina allowed all of them to speak out – forging a communal bond as they rose to address Nassar at his trial.
Given the unheeded accusations and missed opportunities to stop the abuse, “At the Heart of Gold” isn’t easy to watch, and its ennobling elements don’t diminish that sense of outrage. Yet by turning the documentary into such a powerful forum for the resolve and resilience of these young women, Carr, in filmmaking terms, really sticks the landing.
“At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” premieres May 3 at 8 p.m. on HBO. CNN and HBO share parent company WarnerMedia.