At the Heart of Gold
CONTENT WARNING: This review includes a very graphic description and discussion of sexual abuse that occurs in the movie At the Heart of Gold.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” —Nelson Mandela
Do you remember the Michigan Judge Rosemarie Aquilina who went viral in early 2018 because she allowed 156 victims of an accused sexual predator to give personal statements in the courtroom before the sentence was laid down? Her name was everywhere, and we were all astounded by her heroism.
But a lot happened before that trial. Buckle in.
Sitting in a quiet Tribeca Film Festival screening room a few weeks back, I was flooded with nostalgia as the lights dimmed and archive footage began playing of a gymnast hurtling through the air over a vault. The footage took me back to many moments from my childhood when my sister and I sat glued to the TV during the summer Olympics, watching routines for floor, parallel bars, balance beam, and vaulting.
The girls who competed were like fairies—they flew, fluttered, and soared, their leotards twinkling. But they were so strong, too, some of fiercest athletes I ever remember watching. Honestly, they made every other Olympic sport seem boring.
In 2016, the world started to become aware of deep trouble within the USA Gymnastics community, especially the training hub at and near Michigan State University. Gymnast after gymnast began stepping forward with stories of sexual abuse, and Dr. Larry Nassar was the eye of that hurricane.
Director Erin Lee Carr’s (Mommy Dead and Dearest) newest documentary At the Heart of Gold takes on the nearly impossible challenge of presenting a serious film centering on a very public trial that only concluded in 2018. But unlike so many documentaries that seem rushed, just latching onto a scandal before public memory fades away, Carr’s movie is truly shaking—maybe the most powerful movie I’ve seen so far this year.
Carr gives thorough attention to all the important factors at play in the Nassar trial, without the story ever slogging or feeling crowded. She outlines the rigor and dedication required of the young Olympic hopefuls and their families, painting a brutal picture of how gymnastics training is more like training to be a soldier in some kind of international battlefield than it is just training to play a sport.
Then the movie introduces Nassar, the young, friendly sports physician who seemed to be the guardian angel for these gymnasts. He listened to them, he cared about their struggles, he loved them, cheered them on, he helped heal their injuries and ease their pain.
And he put his fingers inside of them, ungloved, for minutes on end.
As the story goes on, Carr proves her journalistic chops by pulling on threads until the story unravels before our eyes. And, magnificently, she usually accomplishes this by putting the camera on these women and girls, asking them to tell their own story. Woven seamlessly throughout the entire documentary are the survivors of Nassar’s grooming and molestation, explaining what happened in their own words.
They explain how they were too young, too lacking in expertise or even knowledge of their own bodies, to understand or question what Nassar was doing to them.
They explain the panic, fear, and defensiveness they felt when Rachael Denhollander finally went to the press.
And for some, like Trinea Gonczar, they explain the grief and complicity they felt, when they understood how long Nassar had been abusing younger girls—many whom weren’t even born when he started. Isn’t that so often where our minds go, in the face of tragedy? If only I could have stopped him sooner.
It’s easy to see that the documentary subjects trusted and felt camaraderie with the movie crew, for they are brutally honest and unafraid to cry or express dark regret. The music is the perfect backdrop, the pacing couldn’t have been stronger, and the archival footage of Nassar at the training camps and of certain Olympic events is both chilling and captivating. By the time we make it to the final stretch, which features extended footage from survivor statements at Nassar’s trial, I was outright sobbing.
At the Heart of Gold works, and is important, because it zooms the camera lens out from Nassar himself. Not only do the filmmakers listen to the voices of survivors (just as Judge Rosemarie Aquilina did), but the film clearly displays the endless levels of failed accountability that led to Nassar’s ability to get away with what he did for so long. No one man can do that alone. It took the negligence of Olympic coaches, revered training camps, many departments at Michigan State University, and even the FBI.
“Adults protect and prefer adults,” says Marci Hamilton, CEO of CHILD USA. explaining the chief reason why horrors like this are perpetuated. As if adults have more to lose than children, because they have careers or houses or salaries. Frankly, this isn’t something you see admitted very often—but in my experience it’s almost always true. Children are real people (which happens to be one of my general life mottos) and even in such a great documentary, I was still surprised to see that sentiment proclaimed so boldly.
The crux of the entire scandal, and thus of this movie, is not only that we must believe, protect, and equip women, as the #MeToo movement insists. We also have to start listening to our children.
At the Heart of Gold posits that the #MeToo movement will be a success if it leads to social and legal change, and I agree. But it might take a lot of heart-wrenching storytelling, like this movie, to get us there. I’m so grateful to Carr, these amazing survivors, and the whole crew for being willing to share theirs. If we pay attention, the lessons we learn from it will bring light and hope to a new generation of children.