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I, Tonya Tries to Do For Tonya Harding What People Vs. O.J. Did For Marcia Clark, But Does Tonya Deserve It?

I, Tonya Spoilers Below

As produced by Margot Robbie and directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) I, Tonya is a real shotgun-blast-to-the-face kind of movie. It takes the sports biopic format, slaps Scorsese all over it, wraps it up in a 30 by 30-esque mockumentary framing device, and then tosses in a bit of Rashomon for good measure since the principal players all seem to remember the history differently. It feels like Robbie soaked up everything she learned on the sets of Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short and then found in disgraced ice skater Tonya Harding the perfect vessel to put those lessons to use. However, is Harding actually worthy of this whirlwind performance and story?

First, the backstory: In 1994, Nancy Kerrigan was attacked just before a Winter Olympics-qualifying event. The video of her crumbled on the ground, sobbing and repeatedly screeching “Why?” was like manna from heaven for ESPN and the still-developing 24-hour news channels. The plot seriously thickened when Kerrigan’s chief rival, Tonya Harding, was named as a possible suspect in the attack. It seemed as if her husband had planned the whole thing, and figuring out what exactly Harding knew and when she knew it became the quixotic quest of many a reporter. It was the strangest thing to happen in sports history…until literally just a couple of months later when O.J. Simpson went for the run of his life in that white Ford Bronco.

I, Tonya’s recreation on left, the actual Kerrigan on right.

The same thirst for around-the-clock news content which elevated O.J. into a national obsession had already done the same for Harding and Kerrigan. They were respectively transformed in the popular consciousness into the trashy villain and wholesome victim. Kerrigan ultimately came out the other end alright, albeit with a new eating disorder, whereas Harding was ruined, perhaps unfairly. The question of her actual complicity in the attack remains a matter of much debate, even today.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the attack, director Nanette Burstein made the documentary The Price of Gold for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. She chose to focus largely on Harding’s white trash upbringing and history of abuse which made her so desperate to escape her monster of a mother that she jumped right into an abusive marriage. The doc invites us to sympathize with a figure we used to mock and better understand how the 1994 incident and our reaction to it was actually a reflection of classicism.

Abuse and skating is all Tonya knew, and both were lifelong occurrences for her. She started skating when she just was 3-years-old, and her mom started hitting her not too long after that.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers followed Burstein’s lead and interviewed both Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly as research for a possible movie about them, but when they each told him wildly differing accounts of their time together, even down to remembering the details of their first date differently, that became part of the story.

Thus, I, Tonya is a biopic which regularly breaks the fourth wall and/or cuts to a talking head segment (featuring the actors aged up and looking back on the events as if interviewed for a documentary, as with Allison Janney as Tonya’s mom in the above picture) to inform us that what we’re watching may never have actually happened. Those rare occasions where Harding and Gillooly do agree on the events are highlighted by split-screen moments of their on-screen counterparts, Robbie and Sebastian Stan, speaking in unison from their respective faux-documentary settings. For example, they both agree everything went to shit for them as a couple in 1991 after she enjoyed her biggest professional success.

This “fuck if we know which one’s telling the truth” model quickly leans more toward Tonya’s side than Jeff’s, largely because there’s simply more evidence, such as verifiable restraining orders and police reports of spousal abuse, supporting her claims than his. By the end, we’re resting almost entirely in Tonya’s point of view. Robbie says she believes Tonya “100 percent,” telling an interviewer, “I don’t think she did anything but be different from what the world wanted. There are cool misfits, and then there is Tonya. She didn’t fit in. And I love that.”

So, similar to what American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. did for another one of 1994’s media victims, beleaguered prosecutor Marcia Clark, I, Tonya aims to celebrate Harding for her strength and spirit and show her as the true victim of the story. Kerrigan’s just the girl who got a bone bruise after being hit below the knee with a lead pipe and instantly became America’s Sweetheart. Harding’s the hard-working, dirt-poor, chronically abused girl who came from nothing and had what should have been the culmination of all her dreams marred by the actions of real-life characters too stupid to breathe.

[Kerrigan would obviously disagree with this assessment, but it’s Tonya’s movie, not her’s.]

They failed her just as asshole skating judges had failed her throughout her entire career since she didn’t live up to their snobbish ideals. More than that, we failed her by so easily agreeing to turn her into a national punchline, cheering her failure just as much if not louder than we did her victories. If that last part isn’t clear enough for you, I, Tonya sees fit to have Robbie’s Harding stare directly into the camera and tell us we’re just as guilty of abusing her as her mother and ex-husband.

It’s an overly blunt, on-the-nose moment, but the film’s overall message is still very effective and, by now, familiar. Allison Janney using her Golden Globes acceptance speech to directly address the real Tonya seated next to Robbie at the I, Tonya table is a direct successor to all those times Sarah Paulson did the same thing to Marcia Clark during her awards victory tour for People Vs. O.J. It gives us the moment of the grateful actress making eye contact with the real person and more or less saying, “On behalf of society, I apologize.”

Clark with Paulson and her Emmy
Harding with Janney and her Golden Globe
If not for Frances McDormand (for Three Billboards), it’d probably be Robbie up there on the stage giving that same speech to Tonya.

But, as Deadspin’s Dvora Meyers pointed out, is this a narrative Tonya Harding actually deserves? Harding’s childhood friend/the director of a documentary made about her at age 15 told Price of Gold she has no doubt Tonya helped plan the attack. Just a few weeks ago Harding told ABC News, “I did, however, overhear [Jeff and her then-bodyguard Shawn] talking about stuff where, ‘Well, maybe we should take somebody out to make sure she gets on the team,’” a stunning and significant break from her prior stance that she had no foreknowledge of any kind of plan to attack anyone. As depicted in I, Tonya, she simply knew they intended to mail fake death threat letters to get inside Nancy’s head, an eye for an eye move since someone had called in a death threat on Tonya at an earlier event. Maybe the “taking someone out” she overheard wasn’t literal and more meant causing someone to drop out due to death threats?

Shortly after that ABC interview, Harding’s publicist dropped her like a bad habit. Now she’s refusing to talk to reporters about her past, demanding that any interview-seekers sign contracts obligating them to pay her thousands of dollars if they break protocol and ask her about 1994.

Robbie told ABC the question of Harding’s involvement in the attack misses the message of the movie, yet that’s only true to a point. I, Tonya is a movie-length apology to a woman let down by family, mentors (why did no one ever call Child Protective Services?), colleagues, the legal system (how did Jeff keep skirting those restraining orders?), the media, and just the whole fucked up American Dream in general. Thanks to Gillespie’s supercharged direction and the strength of the performances across the board, it adds up to a remarkably compelling movie, at least depending on your tolerance for its sometimes overly casual depiction of parental and spousal abuse – the film seems to want to get away with it by always showing Tonya fighting back.

But it’s also a very different, far more complicated movie if it ever entertains the idea that Harding had any real role in the attack or awareness of it beforehand.

It never does, instantly explaining away a key piece of evidence which was used against her, specifically a piece of paper with the name of Nancy’s gym and schedule scribbled out in Tonya’s handwriting. It even hems and haws over how much blame Gillooly actually deserves, turning his friend and Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (played by Paul Walter Hauser) into the cartoonishly stupid idiot responsible for everything. The real Eckhardt, who died just last month, constantly changed his story over the years and emerges here as the easy villain.

I, Tonya, in fact, actually makes a joke out of the idea that Tonya had anything to do with the attack. There’s a brief horror movie-esque fantasy scene featuring her taking a pipe to Nancy’s knee as if she was Lizzie Borden with her axe before turning to the camera and smiling through the streaks of Nancy’s blood on her face. A cutaway back to older Tonya commenting on the events laughs this off with a vulgarity and explains that this monstrous image is really how some people still think of her.

Nevermind the fact that she was only ever found guilty in a court of law of “hindering the prosecution of the victims” (i.e., taking part in the cover-up effort, after the fact), as part of her plea deal to avoid prison time. And, sure, the United States Figure Skating Association separately concluded Tonya knew about the attacks beforehand and banned her for life. But I, Tonya makes the case this decision was based less in fact and more in long-standing prejudice, the USFSA clearly seizing the opportunity to finally rid itself of a nuisance like Harding once and for all.

In banning her for life (and forbidding her from even coaching), the USFSA cut Tonya off from the only thing she was ever good at and doomed her to years of demeaning work trading on her C-level celebrity status to pay the bills. Robbie’s heartbreak in the film upon first hearing the news of the lifetime ban is palpable and registers as some of the best acting of her young career.

Yeah….but what if Tonya actually did it? What if she helped plan or knew about some kind of plan beforehand but didn’t stop it?

Well, she’d still be the girl who was abused by her mother, then by her husband, and then by all of us. That deserves some sympathy, right? Maybe not quite as much sympathy as I, Tonya gives her, but still enough to recognize her as a human being and not some monster.

Leaving the film last night, when I asked the person I saw it with whether or not she liked it her first answer was, “How much of it was true, though?” We don’t really know. The people making the movie don’t even know. That’s why there’s a disclaimer at the start about Tony and Jeff giving differing accounts.

But the story Tonya tells, which is the one the film grows to embrace, is a good one. If you believe her, she got royally screwed and Robbie has done her a service by affording her the respect we so denied her over 20 years ago. If you think she is lying (for example, she still claims she and Nancy were friends before the attack, which Nancy has always denied)? Well, I, Tonya is still a bitterly funny movie with an effective commentary on the odd American need to see our heroes fall, and it still serves as a showcase for some tour de force acting, writing, directing, and editing.

RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS

Much of Robbie’s skating in the film was achieved practically on ice with her and a Steadicam operator. However, the trickiest stuff was done with body doubles and via digital trickery. 
  1. Some of Janney’s dialogue is taken word-for-word from the mother’s interview in the amateur documentary made about Harding when she was just 15. Most of it, though, is entirely made up since the producers were unable to find the mother to get her side of the story.
  2. I, Tonya does contradict its title character one time: when she blames her skating equipment for a performance failure that was actually caused by her own weight gain.
  3. Omitted from the movie: Gillooly sold a Tonya Harding sex tape to Penthouse shortly after being implicated in the Kerrigan case. This could have easily been used to further bury Gillooly, paint him as one of the pioneers of the despicable revenge porn movement, but it never actually comes up.
  4. Omitted from the movie: By 1994, Kerrigan had sponsorship deals with Reebok and Campbell’s Soup whereas Harding was still paying her own way without any corporate deals since she didn’t fit the right image and hadn’t had the best year in competition to that point.
  5. Omitted from the movie: Harding’s claim that when she tried to go to the FBI to tell them what she knew Gillooly threatened to gangrape her with two men she didn’t recognize.
  6. Spot-on joke from Letterboxd: “There’s a scene where Tonya’s voiceover says ‘I was 15’ and then we see full-grown Margot Robbie and it’s probably the funniest moment in 2017 cinema.” The same goes for Sebastian Stan. They both play well below their actual ages, and, yeah, it’s super noticeable.
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2 comments

  1. You know, the first time I heard about the story was when I stumbled upon some kind of documentary about it long after the whole buzz had already died down. It aimed to be an analysis of how the media turned one into an angle and the other into a devil. I guess there is some worth in exploring Tonya as a human being who was a difficult position. But I also think that it would be wrong to omit that the angle in this story was a human being who got terrorized, attacked and nearly missed out on the competition she worked towards. I am not sure if Tonya deserved what happened to her. I am sure as hell sure though that Nancy didn’t deserve the attack on her, no matter if she was an angle or not.

    It is certainly worth looking into the behaviour of the media back then. I am not so sure if excusing Tonya is the right way to do it.

  2. This was an entertaining film told in an entertainign way. The documentary style solves the problem of differeing accounts of the ral actiors however it is clear that the sotry paints Tonya as a victim rather than guilty party. Of course there is digital trickery and face masks but this kind of film could not e done as well 2 or 3 years ago without using distance shots of the skator from far away. Margo robbie and sebastian stan were brilliant but the mum is the best of the lot. Watched 3 billboards and while that script is wittier and the emotional range stronger than this film from its actors this is still a very well acted movie.

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