Like most of America, whenever I heard the name: Tonya Harding, I would instantly think of the “why, why, why?” screams of Nancy Kerrigan. Admittedly, I never thought of her as a person, just a pop culture joke. That was a mistake, I, and much of America made, and I, Tonya seeks to right it.
The opening of I, Tonya is done mockumentary style. We’re greeting by interviews from the “cast” as their respective characters: Tony Harding (Margot Robbie), LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), and a producer from Hard Copy (Bobby Cannavale).
These interviews inter-cut throughout the film, sometimes injecting if the story isn’t being told the way they want it. The cuts are a good-faith effort by the director, Craig Gillespie, to acknowledge the contradictory nature of “the incident” and of Tonya. Once more, if you ever wanted to know what the job of a set or costume designer, or what mise-en-scène is, at the end of the film are clips from the actual interviews. When those clips are compared to those of the mockumentary, it’s apparent that the backgrounds are different, some of the furniture is different, and even the clothing has been adjusted in terms of shade. Each interview has been altered to have stylistic unison. That is, if the character is wearing a baby blue shirt, then you might want the room they’re interviewed in to be a light cool blue. The color and setting you choose can say everything about a character. That’s storytelling through set and costume design.
After we cut from the initial interview segments, we’re greeted by a 4-year old Tonya, with her chain-smoking mother, LaVona, on a practice ice. LaVona’s goal is to get Diane to coach Tonya. I always say that the most important portion of a film is the first 5 minutes. Within 5 minutes of I, Tonya, we get the mockumentary and this scene. We know from this scene that LaVona is the worst kind of Soccer Mom. We know that Diane is keenly interested in Tonya’s talent, and is the complete opposite to LaVona, being a debutante. Most importantly, we get a baseline for Tonya. We see the innocent girl she started out as, as opposed to the rigid competitor she becomes.
I, Tonya is mostly concerned with explaining how and why Tonya is the person she is, and how misunderstood she has become in our lexicon. We see how abusive Tonya’s mother is, as she hits her, pays men off to heckle her from the stands so she skates better, and even stabs her with a knife. We then observe how Tonya runs away from one abusive relationship with her mother to another one with Jeff. We’re also shown how much of an outsider Tonya is from the skating community. Tonya says, “Yes, I’m a redneck.” She trains in the forest, goes hunting, and makes her own dresses, causing her to lose points in competitions based on “presentation.”
Two things make I, Tonya the amazing film that it is: the camera work and the acting. The camera work by Gillespie is mostly comprised of tracking shots. If you’ve ever seen Birdman, the camera movement is very similar as we follow these characters around. The intended purpose of this movement is to give a documentary feel, and sometimes it’s like we’re spying on these characters, as if we’re in on a reality tv series. As Gillespie does this, he intersperses several other styles and references. The skating scenes often switch between sketches of music videos and operatic tragedies, as the music and swirling camera mix together. This is also brought out in the music selection, switching between “The Passenger,” “Barracuda,” and “Devil Woman.”
As we transition to the meat of the story, as Tonya says, “What you all came here to see,” “The Nancy Kerrigan incident,” the story becomes a bumbling mafia film. An anonymous death threat is made against Tonya, leading Jeff and Shawn to cooking up the idea of sending threatening letters to Kerrigan to even the score. The scene where Jeff and Shawn meet up after the incident, at a restaurant called the Golden Buddha, recalls just about every mafia film you’ve ever scene, even making a clear Godfather II reference.
These varied stylistic treatments are buoyed by the acting. Allison Janney is detestable as JaVona, yet remains entertaining. Sebastian Stan does wonders as the piece-of-shit woman beating husband with a heart of gold, with Paul Walter Hauser nailing all of his comic scenes as the idiot sidekick. All of these roles could have been flat, and they might even read as static. However, the main job of an actor is to find the person within the role. Each of the actors finds that person.
Nevertheless, it’s Margot Robbie as Tonya who has to carry the film. As much as the film tries to understand Tonya, I don’t know if it fully does. Of all the interview clips, her’s left the most to be desired. Maybe Gillespie chose the best of what was there, but I wish the interview sections did more to probe the person. However, Robbie totally gets Tonya. She understands the abuse, the drive and need to win, the lack of education, the outsider mentality, the temper, and the good person that lurks within. Tonya Harding is a mess of contradictions and Robbie untangles every single one of them. It’s a shame that I,Tonya is being released so late in the awards season because I think Robbie would have a legitimate shot at Best Actress, and when we look back on this year, we may say that she was the Best Actress.
Yet, there’s one other overt undercurrent, if that’s possible, in I,Tonya that deals with how we judge women. Harding was judged in the court of public opinion and ostracized into a pop culture joke. As a society, we were so willing to throw this woman away. We didn’t want to understand the complexity of her character and her life. She came of age before #metoo, before women had clear avenues to seek out treatment or help from abuse. We still see Tonya Hardings today. Women who are vilified and demonized, blamed by their male counterparts, and a general public who are all too willing to believe it. How much Harding knew or didn’t know about the attack on Kerrigan is somewhat secondary, if that can be believed. Instead, it’s how our culture treats women when they go through the court of public opinion that’s troubling. What’s also regretful is how often we get it wrong.
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Photo Credit: Hollywood Reporter