Film & Television

Netflix Documentaries: Exposing the Monsters

My daughter’s gymnastics career ended while her age was still in single digits. By then, we had invested a small fortune in classes and camps, long-sleeved black and pink velvet leotards, entry fees, and team photos. She has one small trophy and a substantial collection of ribbons to show for it (you needn’t be too impressed; they regularly gave ribbons up to twelfth place and often just for showing up). Despite her auspicious beginnings, when her love of horses surpassed her love of tumbling, her brief and unlikely shot at gymnastics fame was over. She enjoys the sport now — particularly at the college level — as a YouTube spectator.

When you think of women’s gymnastics, you picture petite yet preternaturally muscular bodies, soaring jumps, solid landings, and beaming smiles. But behind those happy faces is an insidious history. Even the name “women’s gymnastics” is a misnomer. Of the 2012 Olympic gold-medal team, known as the “Fierce Five,” four of the athletes were technically still children (only Aly Raisman was already 18). 

Four years later, despite qualifying for Team USA (which brings eight gymnasts to the Olympics; five team members and three alternates), an exceptional young woman named Maggie Nichols was deliberately left off the roster. She was recovering from a torn meniscus, but performed well enough at Olympic trials to earn a trip to Rio. The reason for her exclusion was almost certainly something else.

Maggie Nichols was “Athlete A.”

Nichols was the first gymnast to come forward and file a sexual assault complaint about the team’s doctor, Larry Nassar. Her parents were asked not to make her accusations public and assured by then USA Gymnastics (USAG) CEO Steve Penny that the incident would be investigated by the FBI. He was lying. Within a year, however, an investigative team from The Indianapolis Star uncovered a long history of abuse and cover-ups. Nassar, who had molested more than 250 young women (some estimate as many as 500) over his career, was convicted and is serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary in Florida. Penny currently faces federal felony charges for tampering with evidence.

In Netflix’s meticulously crafted documentary Athlete A, award-winning directors Bonni Cohen and husband Jon Shenk allow victims like Nichols an opportunity to share their harrowing experience. At the same time, they shine a light on a cruel and manipulative system that not only ignored Nassar’s predatory behavior, but created a toxic environment in which his young victims were so accustomed to physical and emotional abuse that they doubted their own reactions to him.

Cohen and Shenk trace a sea change in the sport back to 1976 when 14-year old Romanian Nadia Comăneci astounded the world with her perfect scores. Jennifer Sey, 1986 national champion and one of many gymnasts featured in Athlete A, notes that suddenly, “There was an aesthetic that was very, very young. Childlike. It created a really dangerous environment; people really believed that for the more difficult skills you had to be tiny. There’s also the benefit of the coaches having more control when the girls are younger.” Béla and Márta Károlyi, Comăneci’s coaches, who defected to the US in 1981 and became the nation’s premier women’s gymnastics coaches, leveraged that control to turn out years of Olympic champions, but at great cost to the girls themselves. USAG athletes regularly suffered from exhaustion, untended injuries, and rampant eating disorders. Parents were not allowed at the Károlyi ranch, and the threat of being excluded from the Olympics kept the girls and their families in line. 

Ironically enough, the only kindness the girls experienced was from Dr. Nassar. 2000 Olympian Jamie Dantzscher admits, “I hate this sentence but I would actually look forward to treatment because Larry was the only nice adult I could remember being a part of the USA Gymnastics staff. He was really the only nice adult there.” The “treatment” she references, however, is at the very crux of his crimes. Under the guise of “a necessary medical adjustment,” Nassar digitally penetrated his victims both vaginally and anally. In one chilling interview, a gymnast remembers him doing so, underneath a sheet, with her parents in the room. 

Because of its subject matter, Athlete A is filled with the kind of horrific and salacious details that sell tabloids, but Cohen and Shenk respectfully and compassionately allow the athletes to tell their own stories. Nassar and Penny are given very little screen time, and the women are always presented as survivors rather than victims. In the end, those who perpetrated such cruelty are punished (the Karolyis have retired and are facing lawsuits and criminal investigation as well). More important, the girls who were abused have grown into strong women who have learned, through hard and painful lessons, the value of standing up for themselves. 

A sisterhood of strength also emerges among the survivors of another monster. Netflix’s Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, directed by Lisa Bryant, spends significantly more time with his victims than with the elusive billionaire pedophile. Despite the fact that the interviews are candid and often graphic, the four-part miniseries leaves many questions about the man himself unanswered.

Filthy Rich begins with the story of two sisters who were abused back in the 1990s. Maria Farmer was an art school graduate who was persuaded to sell her work to Epstein and his girlfriend Ghislaine Maxwell. She then introduced them to her younger sister Annie, believing they could help fund her education and desire to travel internationally. Both women were molested (Annie at the time was just 16) and filed complaints with the FBI, which were never followed up. They also told their stories to journalist Vicky Ward, who recalls how angry and helpless she felt when Vanity Fair excluded them from her story, choosing instead to publish a portrait of “a modern Jay Gatsby.” 

The series jumps to more recent years and Epstein’s abuses in his Palm Beach mansion. (One criticism of Filthy Rich is that the four episodes aren’t in chronological order; it’s difficult to follow the story as new victims and locations — Epstein owned homes in half a dozen cities as well as a private island, jet, and yacht — are continually introduced.) In Florida, Epstein preyed upon girls from the less affluent West Palm Beach. Like Nassar, he seemed innately to understand each of his victim’s weaknesses and play to them. Many saw him (and the $200 they would earn for giving him “a massage”) as their way out.

Each of the program’s featured victims (it’s assumed that there were dozens if not hundreds more) is thoughtful and eloquent. It’s impossible to listen to the corroborating testimonies of the two Farmers, Alicia Arden, Chauntae Davies, Michelle Licata, Sarah Ransome, Shawna Rivera, Virgina Roberts Giuffre, Haley Robson, and Courtney Wild with anything less than pure and total credence. As they describe it, the mechanics of his process were stunning. He had five adult female accomplices (Maxwell, Lesley Groff, Sarah Kellen, Nadia Marcinkova, and Adriana Ross), and also enlisted the help of the underage girls he victimized. Each was paid another $200 for every additional girl they brought to him. It was, as attorney Brad Edwards describes, a “Molestation pyramid scheme.”

Equally eye-opening is the sheer number of the world’s rich and powerful who may or may not have joined Epstein in raping minors, but most certainly knew what was going on at his “pedophile island.” An interview with an employee raises doubt about the protested innocence of both Prince Andrew and President Clinton. L Brands CEO and philanthropist Les Wexner is also implicated, as are celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz, President Trump, and, oddly enough, a number of Nobel Prize winners.

Much is made of the “sweetheart deal” Alex Acosta arranged for Epstein in 2008. He served just thirteen months and was permitted to leave prison and go to his office six days a week. This, and his alleged suicide in prison last year, continues to anger many of his victims. But they were finally allowed some closure when Judge Richard Berman gave them “their day in court” to share their stories for public record, if not actually face the accused.

Although both programs are disturbing, they do offer hope and ultimately uplifting endings. Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich‘s Farmer has created hauntingly beautiful paintings of each of the victims she’s met. Through her artwork, we see their unique histories and inner strength, and believe that their futures will be better than the abuses of their pasts. And, Nichols, Athlete A‘s eponymous heroine, left elite gymnastics and became a national superstar for University of Oklahoma. Her smiles when scoring a perfect 10 (which she’s achieved twenty times in her college career) seem genuine at last.

Both Athlete A and Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich are available to stream on Netflix.


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