America has always been fascinated by the scandalous and sordid, and once the 24/7 cable news cycle became firmly entrenched in the mid-1990s, the country was ready to gorge itself.
We got what we asked for. In 1994, when former football star O.J. Simpson was pursued by police down a Los Angeles freeway in a white Ford Bronco, everyone in America tuned in, then stuck around for more than a year to watch his arrest, trial, and eventual acquittal in October 1995. The following year, a child beauty pageant queen named JonBenét Ramsey was found dead in her family’s house, enabling years of tabloid-style speculation about who really did it.
And then there was Tonya Harding, the Olympic figure skater whose connection to a 1994 attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan ensured she’d become as much of a household name — and late-night comedy punchline — as O.J. or JonBenét, or Bill Clinton, for that matter. Just as O.J. somehow distilled America’s racial pathologies and JonBenét encapsulated anxieties about an increasingly sexualized culture, Tonya’s very existence confronted the country’s convenient fictions about being a place where everyone has a fair shot, where an even playing field is the rule.
And the more things change, the more they stay the same. O.J. and JonBenét have both been the subject of (excellent) reconsiderations by documentarians and filmmakers in the past year or so, O.J.: Made in America and Casting JonBenét. From the distance of a couple of decades, their stories seem impossibly prescient of 2017, when the 24/7 news cycle has migrated onto Twitter and Facebook and helped elect a former reality show star with a cable news obsession and a very bad track record on race and gender to the highest office in the land.
Now the triptych is complete. Craig Gillespie’s take on Tonya’s story, the hilarious and gut-punching I, Tonya, is a nearly pitch-perfect black comedy that distills the sensational story into two potent insights very relevant to 2017. It’s a movie about class, and it’s a movie about the nature of truth. And somehow it’s also a supremely entertaining sports movie.
I, Tonya makes a tragicomedy out of an old news event
A working-class girl with an abusive mother and scads of talent, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) didn’t fit the mold of the well-bred, well-behaved young lady favored by figure skating judges. In the skating world, that’s an automatic handicap: “Presentation” — a refined and expensive costume, carefully groomed hair, demure makeup — is part of the score.
But nobody could deny the girl’s talent from a young age, including her hardened and chain-smoking mother LaVona — who is played, transcendently, by Allison Janney in huge plastic glasses and a shapeless brown mop of hair, equal parts hilarious scenery-gnawing and horrifying cruelty. LaVona shoved Tonya at the age of “a soft 4” to a rink in their hometown of Portland, where she insisted that Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) coach her daughter.
And it worked. By the time she reached the peak of her skills in the early 1990s, Tonya became the only American woman to land a triple axel, the most difficult triple jump in the sport. I, Tonya skillfully conjures the thrill of that moment both to the audience and, more importantly, to Tonya. For the young skater — used to being smacked around and verbally abused by her mother and by her eventual husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) — becoming the best in the world at something was her first moment of validation, not just as a skater but as an actual, valuable human being.
The film drives hard on the point that the world both on and off the ice was set against Tonya from the start, specifically because of what she nonchalantly and unapologetically calls her own status as a “redneck.” I, Tonya renders a working-class existence in America without patronization, and Tonya never wants to be like the girls she skates against, but she’s angry that the judges hold it against her. Skating is a sport, not a beauty pageant; why should her homemade costumes and permed hair count against her?
But the whole world is against Tonya, and the way the “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan unfolds — as well as the media feeding frenzy around it — is a testament to the frustration of that struggle.
I, Tonya spares no words on America’s addiction to scandal
In pushing the film into gonzo-style comedy instead of melodrama or pure docudrama, Gillespie successfully navigates a very tricky line — this is, after all, a story filled with domestic abuse and violence, something that shouldn’t be played for laughs but is also not the focus of the story.
Gillespie’s camera moves briskly and vigorously in scenes at the rink and at home, which gives I, Tonya a kinetic energy that doesn’t dwell too long on anything. The dramatic beats come and go quickly, with gasps and laughs piling on top of each other at the speed of a spinning skater. With a big, fun soundtrack filled with rock hits from the 1980s and ’90s, it feels at times like a music video.
The structure of the film helps too. I, Tonya is set up to mimic a documentary; the story unfolds in “interviews” reminiscent of those in a Christopher Guest movie. In those interviews, Tonya, LaVona, Diane, Jeff, and other characters tell the story their way; text at the beginning of the film explains that it’s “based on irony-free, totally contradictory” interviews with Tonya and Jeff. That the characters’ interviews control the tone and speed of the story — that they’re allowed to talk about what seems significant to them — gives the story a jolt of realism, even though the conceit is obviously artificial.
The fact that the stories contradict one another allows the movie to do a few other things that put it in the same category as a movie like The Big Short: It breaks the fourth wall, gives multiple perspectives on the same events, and occasionally employs a split screen in order to emphasize how mushy the concept of “facts” are in any sensational news story. What we have is one person’s word against another — and as soon as it’s televised, everyone who watches develops their own theory of what really happened. It’s no surprise we’re now in a “post-truth” era.
With unblinking candor, Robbie’s Tonya says that her story became so big because the 24/7 news cycle needed something to fill it. “America, you know, they want someone to love, and they want someone to hate, and they want it easy,” she says. She was an easy villain for America, easy to hate in contrast to well-behaved ice princess Nancy Kerrigan. This was also a theme visited by both The People v. O.J. Simpson and Casting JonBenét, and it’s at the crux of what makes these stories so compulsively interesting right now. The “real” events get refracted endlessly through millions of breathless watchers’ experiences and start to take on meanings that have only a tenuous connection to the truth, whatever that may be.
Tonya Harding’s story is one of resilience, and the movie tells us that — partly by letting her (or Robbie playing a version of her) speak, and partly by keeping Kerrigan out of it entirely, save for a few shots. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a tragedy. “There’s no such thing as truth,” Tonya says near the end of the film. “It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.”
America’s relationship to its own news is less of a search for information and more like an unhealthy sort of fandom, consumed with theories and scandals and villains. Tonya Harding was both lucky and unlucky enough to have triple-axeled her way into that spotlight.
I, Tonya premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was acquired by Neon. It opens in limited release on December 8 and wide in January 2018.