Written by Ram Venkat Srikar
The greatest achievement of any great documentary is that it can actually change lives. Indirectly, they can inspire and instigate a conversation about a particular subject matter, thereby holding the potential to alter viewer perceptions. In a direct sense, the best of the documentaries empower the humans whose story they are capturing on camera and give a voice to them. The Paradise Lost documentary trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky and the Peter Jackson-produced West of Memphis cumulatively played a vital role in cleansing the public image of three wrongfully convicted teenagers in 1993’s triple homicide case. The aforementioned documentaries, which strongly opposed the judicial judgment, can be attributed in a way to the early release of the three men.
Documentaries are life. They tell real stories and have consequences in the real world. On these lines, Athlete A, is bound to change the life of Maggie Nichols, who remains at the film’s focal point surrounded by macro and microdynamics that collectively oppress her. Athlete A is her voice, a voice to hundreds like Nichols; it is the resistance to such macro factors. The film is a documentation of an immense tragedy and a gargantuan triumph. The new Netflix original documentary directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk is another crucial addition to the studio’s continually flourishing library of powerful documentary titles. It surely is one of the most important documentaries of our age that exposes not just the crudeness of the certain people involved in the subject matter, but stands as a testament to the hypocrisy among us, the masses.
Athlete A, refers to the then-anonymous gymnast, Maggie Nichols, who happens to be the first person to report sexual abuse by her team doctor Larry Nassar. We’d later find out that she was only one of the hundreds of other young girls subjected to Nassar’s voyeuristic nature. However, the film doesn’t stop there. It goes beyond the single man, the micro factor, and tries to bring the USA Gymnastics body, the macro factor that’s been backing Nassar through his tenure at the regulatory body. It’s heartbreaking to watch Nichols’ parents talk about the systemic abuse she was subjected to, after she reported the sex abuse. The emotional abuse by the regulatory body that is followed after it turns a blind eye to physical abuse is perhaps the bigger crime. The film is as much about the Nassar’s crimes as it is about the survivors who had to fight a bigger entity, namely USA Gymnastics that masqueraded as national pride.
Athlete A, grabs the antagonists, the doctor, and the president of USA Gymnastics among others – by the collar, asking them difficult questions, while painting a clear picture from the perspective of victims, because that’s the only truth that matters. Following journalists and lawyers – who are the saviors of the victims – the film bestows a proper narrative flow that ensures the intrigue persists throughout. Like every good thriller, the suspense is gradually built, information is given out bit by bit, revealing the bigger muddle. The filmmakers assume the viewers are completely unaware of the scandal, which results in a structure in which every revelation is a shock and not merely information. When a sex abuse survivor shares her pain of being humiliated, you cannot help but bewilder yourself thinking about the world’s misapprehension of these strong women. Above an individual doctor, above the government-backed organization, the sheer ignorance of people is sure to baffle you, although the film only touches upon it.
The film covers multiple facets: power abuse, the influence of robust journalism, ignorance of the world, and preference for money over the dignity of young lives, and makes a staggering point on every ground it sets foot in. The last 15 minutes of the film create a sense of joy, pride, and satisfaction. It felt like exhaling after years of holding my breath. If that’s how I – the viewer – is made to feel, imagine the exhilaration and rejoice the film would bring to its subject matter. Only a documentary can have such an impact, and only a documentary this powerful can have this level of impact.