Column:: Documentary ‘At the Heart of Gold’ sheds light on the culture that enabled Larry Nassar

Larry Nassar listens to one of his victims give her impact statement in 2018.
(Matthew Dae Smith / Associated Press)

We suggest an audience warning to precede the HBO documentary “At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal” when it debuts May 3:

Will cause heartache, stomach churning and festering anger. If symptoms persist, consult a doctor. One you hopefully can trust.

Larry Nassar, the Michigan State and U.S. Olympic doctor sent away to prison a year ago for a litany of sexual assault counts involving female athletes in his care, has 2069 as his earliest possible release date. His sentence could go as long as 175 years.


In reality, he’s not disappearing any time soon from our line of vision. He is the new poster boy for the cautionary tale of terror in gymnastics.

The emotional impact statements — from more than 150 victims — that Nassar squirmed through in a televised sentencing hearing during early 2018, and refused to show remorse or change his plea from not guilty, deliver the most profound gut punch during the final half hour of this 90-minute piece.

That is the intent.

Likewise, director Erin Lee Carr, a self-confessed “fan girl” of the sport with a background in true-crime documentaries, can be heard occasionally off camera asking questions to about a dozen victims. Carr admitted her objective is to “participate in a form of radical empathy as it relates to being a journalist.

The 31-year-old said being unbiased “is important in journalism and ethics, but I feel deeply for these women who are sex abuse survivors. Is it OK to give my voice and add that so audience knows I’m feeling a certain way? It was a conscious decision in some of these moments of great tenderness.”

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Carr said it took more than just the help of plaintiff’s attorney Mick Grewal to convince the gymnasts and dancers to feel comfortable enough for interviews that reveal years of Nassar’s cultivation process. Some refer to him as “a guardian angel,” and considering him a criminal is “counter-intuitive” to his “super dorky” personality.


“I have to be honest — there was a point when it was difficult to see how this film was going to work,” Carr disclosed. “The subject matter was very painful. Documentaries are about trust, and it took a leap of faith for some.

“I’m deeply appreciative for how this turned out. But I can’t for a second forget how incomprehensible and impossible it seemed at the start as we had production companies and lawyers and all sorts of people trying to figure it out, then have a hand in making it work.”

Carr considers editor Cindy Lee and executive producer Sarah Gibson most important in deciding “what was the right way to do this.” That included Michigan circuit court judge Rosemarie Aquilina agreeing to appear in the documentary and deftly explain her sentencing thought process when she said: “I just signed your death warrant.”

Women’s gymnastics is on the collective radar of Southern California sports viewers. It could go back to ABC’s coverage of the 1984 Summer Olympics, or current broadcast rights-holder NBC ramping up toward the 2028 Games. There’s also the ESPN and Pac-12 Networks platforms that heralded the success of UCLA’s women’s team under coach Valorie Kondos Field.

Some 40 victims of the Nassar abuse case came together at the Microsoft Theater in L.A. Live to receive the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage during the 2018 ESPYs.

Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander, center, is hugged after giving her victim impact statement during the seventh day of Larry Nassar's sentencing hearing on Jan. 24, 2018.
(Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

During the “At the Heart of Gold” debut last week during the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, Gibson cited the media’s constant impact on this story. She told the Hollywood Reporter: “We don’t take care of the (gymnasts) representing our country and who are the biggest moneymaker for NBC. It’s a travesty and needs to be called out.”

Producers David Ulich and Dr. Steven Ungerleider, also listed as senior researchers, made this documentary cohesive as well with their connections.

L.A.-based Ulich, a lawyer who recently joined the LA2028 organizing committee, joined sports psychologist and author Ungerleider in a production company they call Sidewinder Films.

“Ultimately we felt film was the best medium to reach as many as possible and we’re thrilled to have HBO doing this,” said Ulich. “It’s obviously an extremely difficult topic and we don’t want to turn viewers off after just a few minutes. We want to make sure that we also make this uplifting and integrate a message of hope for the sport going forward.”

They plan to use the film after its HBO run time to educate parents, athletes and coaches on all sorts of platforms.

“We don’t want people to walk away from this clinically depressed,” Ungerleider said. “There is an upside to this story. We want to shift the paradigm and get the word out that we have evolved.”


Tune it in

The backstretch of the Talladega Superspeedway provided key opportunities for Fox to integrate a new stabilized, untethered drone camera as it continued valuable experimentation with the technology during Sunday’s NASCAR coverage.

The live shot of a crash with seven laps to go involving Chris Buescher coming out of Turn 2 even caught a glimpse of the buzzing drone, which eventually provided a unique, sharp-focused replay from the infield side.

Some viewers expressed angst on social media that the drone wasn’t as helpful documenting a multi-flip wreck on the final lap involving Kyle Larson, but the way the wreckage played out seemed to impede any clear view.

“It’s been the vision of our production and technical teams to have drone cameras as part of our race coverage,” said Fox Sports’ Emmy Award-winning director Artie Kempner before the race. “It will provide the viewer with dynamic views not seen before in motor sports.”

Fox’s advancement in this applied science works in coordination with the FAA, Homeland Security and NASCAR.


Tune it out

Disney and ABC may have been financially compelled to charm the NFL in every which way possible with prime-time network broadcasting for the sports’ annual draft circus last Thursday and Friday, highlighted by a compressed presentation of player-overcomes-hardship videos for just about every first-round choice.

But did all of it really need to jeopardize the loyal “Jeopardy!” viewers, also compelled to track the record-breaking, open-field runs by sports bettor James Holzhauer? Even host Alex Trebek couldn’t question whether there was plenty of nuanced draft coverage already available for anyone on ESPN or the NFL Network.

No wonder Lee Corso just got up and left the draft table at one point.