I, Tonya (2017)

Directed by Craig Gillespie


I, Tonya has been described as the Goodfellas of figure skating.  It’s a wild movie, both violent and occasionally hilarious, with a momentum that carries throughout the entire film.  Characters constantly break the fourth wall to comment on the events of the story with some foresight and the same hindsight that today’s audiences will have.  While dramatic, the story never overdramatizes Tonya Harding’s life, instead making you a little uncomfortable with the somewhat casual depiction of the domestic violence she endured for so long.

The effect of all this is to desensitize you to the crazy behavior so that when you get to “the incident,” it hardly feels out of line with what we’ve already seen.  In doing this, the film puts you firmly in Tonya Harding’s world.  As Tonya (Margot Robbie) says in one of several character interviews, spliced throughout the film, what’s the big deal about Nancy Kerrigan getting hit once when Tonya spent her whole life getting beat up, whether by her absurdly over-bearing mother or by her husband.

This is Tonya’s world.  We’re made to identify so strongly with her and to see the figure skating world just as insane as she saw it.  It’s a sport and a community that prides itself on a certain high-class, wholesome representation.  When Tonya, a self-described redneck, shows up, she finds that the forces work against her because she’s not the ideal image of what a figure skater should be.  It’s about more than just the talent, she’s told.

The film is told through multiple perspectives, and at the top we’re told that many of these perspectives will contradict one another.  It’s never about who is right, because it’s impossible to know, but instead to lay it all out on the table and let the audience decide what to believe.

The film is crazy, almost as crazy as its characters.  The script has its own kind of momentum, and as writer Steven Rogers said, he wanted the style to reflect the shared insanity of each of the characters.

While the first half of the film deals with Harding’s upbringing, the focus of the film, and the reason for its existence, is the “incident” that left competitor Nancy Kerrigan with a broken knee.

The attack is organized through Harding’s “bodyguard,” a man named Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).  Shawn is too ridiculous to believe.  He’s a self-described expert in counterintelligence, but he lives in his parents’ basement.  His actions, if the film is to be believed, are the most destructive, and Harding suffers for it.

Again, because of the conflicting multiple perspectives, it’s hard to know who to believe about what happens.  The takeaway isn’t so much about who is at fault as much as it is that the whole thing was one large mess.  The problem wasn’t Tonya or Jeff or her mother or even Shawn but rather the sum of all of them together.

I, Tonya could focus only on this attack, but it’s scope expands to show us Tonya’s world from a young age.  We empathize with her plight, and between her upbringing, the nature of her sport and the absurd characters who surround her and seem to get her into trouble without her help, she’s a character who is never really in control.  Everyone capitalizes off of Harding’s image.  The judges force her to present herself in a more proper, mannered fashion, and her ex-husband and Shawn try to profit off of her celebrity.  Her mother, of course, does the same thing from a young age, determined to make her into a star rather than to love her.

When the film ends, Harding is kicked out of figure skating, and she’s left broke and alone.  Despite her obvious talent and years of hard work, she has nothing to show for it. Even her image, which was long propped up despite the crumbling foundation underneath, is tainted by the Kerrigan incident and subsequent trial.  She’s a character who had to work so hard just to be the person everyone wanted her to be, and she’s left broken by the end.

The film’s epilogue tells us how she resorted to celebrity boxing to keep herself in the public eye.  She is badly beaten in the ring, and the film juxtaposes a grotesque, slow-motion image of her flailing after a particularly bad blow with the earlier image of her landing a “triple Axel,” a previously thought impossible figure skating move.  It’s a cruel joke, showing how something can be at once so graceful and so brutal.  Maybe this applies to her sport, to Harding herself or to the nature of celebrity in America.  As Harding mentions, as much as America wants someone to root for, they also want someone to tear down.

So in the end, Harding’s image, though thought to be ruined, is somehow fulfilled.  She tried so hard to be the hero, but maybe it was her destiny to be the villain.  After all, the film makes it seem as though many people, the judges included, only wanted to see her fail.  And then she did.

But America also loves a good redemption story, and now here you have I, Tonya.

Up Next: The Congress (2013), Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), The Disaster Artist (2017)

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