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I, Tonya

by on January 4, 2018
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The Tonya Harding fiasco in the 1994 is one I entirely missed out on, thanks to being born the following year, and it would be at least a dozen more years until I first heard about it. I never looked much into it myself, rather just piecing it together from passing references made by those older than me who remember it. Thus, my understanding of the situation has always been relatively informal, often clouded in nostalgia and bias toward what actually went on. Harding’s name is one that, at one point (and possibly still today, in some cases), would elicit head-shaking and scowls upon being mentioned. I won’t outline the whole series of events here, but a quick Google search can likely bring you up to speed. Anyway, I went into Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya with what was ultimately a fairly impressionable mind; that is, I was open to empathy or understanding in ways that I perhaps wouldn’t have been if I’d been around the real-life events at the time or had a better grasp on what happened.

Strangely enough, I think my experience in the film was enhanced by my lack of presuppositions. I say that’s strange because the angle that I, Tonya takes is clearly aimed at those who were there and do have presuppositions. It takes a “Trust me; you don’t know my whole story” approach to a prominent news event in modern American history, seeking to challenge what people think they know about Harding and the circumstances that surrounded her. Typically, this approach is more effective when there is some untold truth that is to be revealed through the story, making for a surprising and informative tale with newfound empathy for the characters involved.

But with I, Tonya, we are given two very conflicting stories, both of which are made clear at the beginning of the film to be based merely on single interviews with each Harding and her husband at the time (now ex) Jeff Gillooly. The two were asked about their take on their relationship, their early lives, and the scandal at the 1994 Olympic games for which they both became infamous. The film takes these interviews and recreates them with stars Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan in place of the real-life figures. These recreations are then spliced up into parts and spread throughout the rest of the film, acting as intermittent “talking heads” to frame the events in a loose mockumentary-style structure. The rest of the film is made up of more narrative drama-style scenes, and the perspective shifts back and forth as Harding and Gillooly tell contrasting versions of various events. This gets hairy when the film goes long stretches without cutting back to the talking heads to let us know whose story we’re being told. In the end, it’s Harding’s that the film sides with, though we’re left with some empathetic framing of Gillooly’s decisions and feelings, which makes for a thematically uneven conclusion. Harding asserts that she’s got it right, and Gillooly concedes that he ruined Harding’s career, but beyond that, we’re given little on which to base our moral convictions about the situation. Now, there’s certainly something to be said for giving a sense of empathy to all sides of a story, and for the dramatic power of leaving audiences a little bit in the dark. But when the opening of the film seems to claim itself as the “real story” of what happened, and then we’re left wondering, “What really happened?” Well, then clearly the film has contradicted itself.

But that’s not to say I, Tonya fails either as a story or as a piece of simple entertainment. In fact, it’s awfully well done on both fronts. Despite being grounded in history–a situation in which we already know the outcome–I, Tonya manages to feel suspenseful and tense, mostly thanks to colorful characterization and solid performances that seek to add human depth to figures that most of us have pretty one-dimensional views of. Robbie and Stan both shine, Robbie playing Harding as a spitfire who feels misunderstood and will stop at nothing to genuinely prove that she is the best, and Stan giving hilarious-yet-disturbing eccentricity and awkwardness to Gillooly as the abusive but loyal husband. More striking than the rest is Allison Janney, who plays Harding’s hard-bitten, no-shit-giving mother who, at first, seems like a tough-love mom wanting her daughter to succeed, but quickly shows herself to be physically and emotionally abusive and unfeeling toward her daughter’s needs and desires. The three make for a powerful and darkly hilarious trio, and each one manages to carry his or her own weight whenever it comes time to take center stage.

Structurally, you’ve kind-of seen this movie before. It’s The Wolf of Wall Street, but with less money, drugs, and sex. It’s about a controversial yet famous/powerful person and how their fiery resolve skyrocketed them into the position they find themselves in at the climax of their story, which then leads to a number of poor decisions, resulting in controversy and consequence. All the while, it’s wild, frenetically-paced, and colorfully rendered in pop-culture fashion, almost like a highlight reel of all the absurdities that led to the end result. It’s hard to shake the feeling that I, Tonya is borrowing heavily from is predecessors in the “fun biopic” subgenre.
As said before, it feels like this film is telling its story to the wrong people. I, Tonya pretends to be the “new, definitive story” of what happened, but plays as a deliberately subjective interpretation of the events. Thus, it works better for someone like me, who really wasn’t too familiar with the story, than it does for the people who might actually be interested in hearing the “new, definitive story.”

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