I, Tonya : The story of Tonya Harding’s career has been hashed over by journalists, in midday movie specials and documentaries – so an attempt at a fresh and irreverent take on the events in 1994 is understandable as movie fodder. This film has all the fun of a Coen brothers caper but has misjudged the irreverence to the extent of insensitivity when it comes to telling Tonya’s difficult story.
You can’t handle the truth. The film is based on the events Harding’s life leading up to and including the 1994 incident surrounding figure skater Tonya Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, and the attempted attack on Harding’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan. It’s a story that at once seems too outlandish to be true, and the film plays on this; truth is a running theme, emphasized by the style in which the story unfolds. Tonya (Margot Robbie) and Jeff (Sebastian Stan) sit separately, interview style, in the presumably present – Tonya in a kitchen, smoking and drinking coffee, while Jeff sits in what looks like an empty hair and beauty studio. LaVona, Tonya’s bile-spewing mother (played brilliantly by Allison Janney) chimes in with her perspective at times too. There is a documentary, or even mockumentary feel from this as they each tell us their versions of the ‘truth’, flashing back and forwards in time. Director Craig Gillespie plays with each story – at times Jeff and Tonya contradict each other on the versions of events, sometimes breaking the fourth wall to emphasize a particular perspective or punch-line. The camera work is styled to jar at times – low angles, rough hand-held moments – and during the skating scenes, the camera swoops and slides around Tonya (turns out the steady-cam operator was also a great ice skater). All competitive skating sequences, costuming (even the hair metal soundtrack) were lovingly replicated from footage of Tonya in competition. It creates a Guy Ritchie style crime-romp around the idea of what is truth, “There’s no such thing as truth” Tonya declares at one point. This idea is furthered when we meet the characters that attempt the attack – Shawn in particular (Paul Walter Hauser), defies belief as a truthful representation of an actual person (he is, later footage shows). As present-day Jeff and Tonya recount their respective stories, you can’t help but notice the hard truth of age on each as well, and what their choices in life have left them with – LaVona in particular, as she sucks away at a cigarette while hooked up to an oxygen machine.
I, Victim. As the narrative unfolds though, sometimes that Guy-Ritchie-romping vibe gets a little hard to stomach. The film strives to use Tonya’s humble beginnings to tell an underdog story, and she’s the perfect model for it; rough, tacky but talented and coming out fighting against the snooty National Ice Skating Association - you want to cheer for her from the start. But as the darker aspects of her personal life are rolled out with the same cynicism and dark humor as the rest of the events, it doesn’t sit right. Tonya was verbally and physically abused by both her mother and her ex-husband Jeff, and the film chooses not to take delicate steps around this fact. Great, that’s fine, but to make a comedy out of it? Not so great. Gillespie makes a half-hearted attempt at justifying this with the ‘truth’ idea – she gave as good as she got, we’ll never know what really happened, all that. But in the age of #MeToo, this doesn’t fly so well and leaves you with the feeling that you’re not really hearing a story from ‘I, Tonya’ – rather, from the #NotAllMen corner. Tonya’s character is a difficult one for audiences – she is abrasive, at times mean and not the Cinderella that you usually gun for in the typical underdog story, at times she is downright unlikeable. Making a comedy out of her misfortunes though hardly seems to be the answer.