' ' Cinema Romantico: At the Heart of Gold

Monday, July 29, 2019

At the Heart of Gold

Early in “At the Heart of Gold”, Erin Lee Carr’s HBO documentary examining the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal that engulfed and infected the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), USA Gymnastics (USAG), Michigan State University, and others, we see archival footage of the exalted moment at the 1996 Summer Olympics when American gymnast Kerri Strug landed a vault on an injured ankle cementing her team’s Gold Medal. As the injured Strug is helped off the mat, however, we suddenly realize one of those people helping her is Nassar, the national team’s medical coordinator. It not only reframes a significant American athletic moment, the suddenness of its presentation conveys the sensation of Nassar as a snake in the grass, always there, lurking, waiting to take advantage. Carr further evinces this idea by providing no overview of the scandal as the movie begins, but rather providing a brief history of the USA Gymnastics program and just segueing to Nassar without really segueing at all, his name appearing without warning in the interview of a former female gymnast, and then another, and then another, evoking the documentary’s structure as a metaphorical tidal wave, interview after interview of young women whom Nassar abused, mirroring his eventual trial when the number of women giving impact victims statements ballooned from 88 to 156. It’s virtually impossible to sit through so many testimonials and so much evidence and not come away certain of Nassar’s guilt, though that apparently still happens, as some interviewees attest, recounting the standard-issue protestations about payouts and the like. If you believe all 156, you believe 1; if you don’t believe 1 then you won’t believe 156.

The dozens of ex-gymnasts interviewed attest to identical methods by Nassar, simultaneously professional and evil in the way he would utilize massages and other suppose fitness techniques for avenues of abuse. As these painful stories are recounted, Carr frequently cuts to footage of apparent Nassar training videos in which he explains what he’s doing, in the sort of Pleasantville-ish voice, while demonstrating his methods on gymnasts whose faces remain off camera. Standing apart from everything else, it would be hard to look at this person and think him capable of what he was found guilty of doing. But Carr keeps going back this footage, again and again, not asking us to scrutinize these videos for evidence but challenging our perceptions, telling us that our eyes can deceive us, imploring us to believe the women being interviewed.

Though Carr allows for a moment when Nassar’s public defender deems the cycle of victim impact statements as akin to a mob, closer to truth than a viewer might want to admit given the moment when one gymnast’s father tries to attack in Nassar in court and is physically stopped, she also almost entirely forgoes any opposing voices in the form of the USOC, USAG, or Michigan State. But then, “At the Heart of Gold” takes care to portray gymnastics as a world where the athletes are, in the parlance of coach speak, broken down and built back up into people specifically taught not to ask questions but to do as they are told. In this light, it becomes easy to understand why they would have allowed Nassar to continue treating them, sometimes even in the basement of his own home, even when intrinsically they sensed it all along that it wasn’t right because mentally they had been conditioned to shut up and accept it.

One of the coaches shown to have not only employed Nassar but apparently ignored repeated warnings about his behavior was John Geddert, a former club coach and co-head coach of the 2012 USA Olympics Gymnastics team. Video shows him instructing a gymnast through an uneven bars routine, just as you frequently see in televised competition, though here the sound is not tamped down for viewers at home so that we can hear every word he says, basically speaking the routine out loud for her as she does it, as if without his accompanying voice she would just fall off. At movie’s end, Carr returns to Chelsea Zerfas, one of Nassar’s victims, who painfully but pointedly discusses people questioning how she could even stomach gymnastics after her ordeal. But she explains the sport is in and of itself still inherently beautiful and that what Nassar and his myriad enablers robbed from her, and all the rest, was that beauty, that love for what they did.

The movie closes on images of Zerfas performing a bar routine. Noticeably, no coach is there issuing orders; it’s just her and the bars.

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