By Nick Schager
Dr. Larry Nassar was the prototypical wolf in sheep’s clothing, a respected physician, community figure, and friend who exploited the trust of children and adults alike in order to perpetrate sexual assaults against young female gymnasts. His infamous fall from grace, and the impact it had on those who suffered by his hand, is movingly recounted by “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal,” director Erin Lee Carr’s survivor-populated documentary. Reasonably definitive and, thus, deservedly damning, it should have a long life on HBO, following its Tribeca Film Festival debut.
It wasn’t until September 2016 that Nassar, a sports doctor at Michigan State U. and with USA Gymnastics’ national team, was publicly outed by former gymnast Rachael Denhollander as a sexual predator. In the months that followed, hundreds of athletes came forward to claim that they too had been molested by Nassar, often via a trademark “technique” (involving vaginal penetration) that he claimed was for medical purposes. It was a headline-dominating revelation punctuated by the ensuing discovery of Nassar’s child pornography stash, and it culminated with a 2018 court sentencing at which numerous victims read statements to his face. “At the Heart of Gold” plays those acts of brave defiance at length, their confessional power so raw and pained that they’ll undoubtedly bring many viewers to tears.
Before reaching that traumatic footage — including Randall Margraves (a father of three victims) begging for a minute alone with Nassar, and then rushing the pedophile in court — Carr lays out Nassar’s illustrious standing in his field. Whether working with USA Gymnastics or John Geddert’s Twistars, Nassar was a revered and beloved figure by virtually everyone who knew him. His cheery, goofy demeanor and constant concern for the health and well-being of his patients made him seem like gymnasts’ one true friend in an environment otherwise dominated by ball-breaking adults (including culture-defining titans Bela and Marta Karolyi) who expected girls to work until they dropped and never complain about injuries. Since physical maladies were a constant factor, Nassar always had a steady stream of targets in his office — and it was there, often under the watchful eyes of parents, that he groped and inserted fingers into gymnasts as part of his technique.
Employing dozens of interviews with Nassar’s abused former charges (minus, notably, Aly Raisman, Simone Biles and McKayla Maroney), “At the Heart of Gold” conveys the insidious way Nassar carried out his crimes, which soon also took place in the basement of his house, as well as the corrupt system that enabled him. With everyone touting Nassar and his technique as unimpeachable, and trained to silently accept discomfort as a natural facet of chasing Olympics glory, girls — deliberately kept in a prepubescent state by rigorously repetitive training — simply grimaced and bore it. That other coaches and administrators knew about Nassar’s behavior is irrefutable, and Carr details the earlier accusations levied against the doctor, all of which were ignored or dismissed by individuals, schools, and governing bodies that — out of self-interest and/or a general belief that kids are less reliable than grown-ups — continued to employ Nassar, to the detriment of countless subsequent victims.
Carr plays it straight aesthetically, marrying archival footage with newly recorded commentary, and it’s the latter that gives “At the Heart of Gold” its gut-punching potency. Speaker after speaker is tormented by not only what was done to them, but feelings of rage and guilt over having not realized that Nassar’s conduct was wrong — a mistake that then led them to encourage others to seek out his help. In Kyle Stephens’ heartbreaking statement to the court about the personal and familial ramifications of Nassar’s actions, the film exposes the far-reaching consequences of such monstrousness, which no matter the courageous and inspiring resilience of its many survivors, has clearly left profound, lasting scars.