REVIEW: At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal (2019 – Documentary)

Release Poster – HBO

The following is a short review of the HBO documentary At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal — Directed by Erin Lee Carr.

From the mid-to-late-1990s to the mid-2010s, Dr. Larry Nassar — a husband, and father of three children — worked for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University as a national team doctor and physician respectively. Nassar was, to many, seen as the nice guy in a sport populated by inhumane coaches. Nassar was, even by victims in this documentary, described as a confidante and friend.

What parents did not realize — and what gymnasts blocked out — was that Nassar was a serial abuser who used his position of power to abuse young women for decades until he was sentenced to between 40 and 175 years in prison in 2018. At the Heart of Gold — Erin Lee Carr’s latest HBO documentary — explores the institutional abuse that allowed for Nassar to exist, and it presents damning and heart-wrenching victim interviews.

The first time I heard of Dr. Larry Nassar was when I stumbled onto a courtroom clip on Twitter. In the clip, a clearly upset father of an abused gymnast asked the judge to give him five minutes alone with Nassar so that he could execute justice, so to speak. When the judge calmly explained that she could not allow for that to happen, he jumped towards Nassar in an attempt to tackle the abuser.

The father was prevented from doing what he wanted to do. He was pushed to the ground, put in handcuffs, and calmly taken out of the room. As the father was taken out of the courtroom, he asked those who had put him in handcuffs what they would’ve done if they were in his shoes. It’s one of those clips that I’ve had a tough time getting out of my mind since then.

In Erin Lee Carr’s documentary At the Heart of Gold, I saw the clip once more. It was a part of the moving section of the documentary where Carr showcased plenty of the powerful victim impact statements that gymnasts were allowed to give to the courtroom and to their abuser, who was forced to listen to all of these brave women as they looked a monster in the eye and rebuked it in any way, shape, or form they saw fit.

A compilation of archival footage of piercing words and moving statements may not sound particularly groundbreaking for documentary filmmaking — and maybe it isn’t — but it is powerful. The film also features uncomfortable and disgusting descriptions of Nassar’s actions, disturbing video footage of instructional videos that Nassar made wherein he groped and massaged young female bodies, and maddening accounts of how coaches (male and female), as well as universities and sports organizations, allowed for this to happen.

Your heart will break for the young women and you will be furious with almost everyone else they discuss in the documentary. The film points out how integral some appalling methods and mantras are to the sport itself. The documentary opens with Nassar saying one of these mantras — ‘gymnast first’ — over and over again, and the film later identifies a disturbing focus on athletic Darwinism in a sport mostly populated by young women.

The 88-minute runtime of the documentary is a bit of an issue, though. The documentary is not just focused on the abused or the abuser. Carr, the documentarian, is interested in exploring USA Gymnastics’ past, present, and future, cultural silencing, institutional liability, and the rebuilding of a cherished sport. I feel like the documentary’s somewhat wide focus would’ve benefitted from a longer runtime, but, as it is, I appreciate that the film doesn’t include reenactments of abuse and the fact that Carr has more on her mind than merely presenting the USA Gymnastics scandal.

Erin Lee Carr’s latest documentary is a disturbing, powerful, and damning eye-opener. At the Heart of Gold doubles as, firstly, a feature-long victim impact statement and a testament to the courage of women in the #MeToo-era and, secondly, as an exploration of cultural toxicity, antiquated and unreasonable athletic standards, and institutional abuse.

8 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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