Long before the film makes a direct reference to the O.J. Simpson trial, I, Tonya establishes itself as relative of the 2016 miniseries The People vs. O.J. Simpson. The cases have a lot of similarities: both involved famous athletes, both involved vilifying the figures involved with little to no context, both served as studies of the way our country neglects and frowns upon those we deem below us, and both tend to ignore the complex, complicated people at the center of things. However, I, Tonya is its own entity – a biting, winking satire that explores America’s fascination with celebrity, greed, obsession, archetypes, and winning at all costs.
Presented in mockumentary format alongside conflicting, sardonic flashbacks as told by a group of well-known liars, I, Tonya follows the life of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as she emerges as one of the best skaters of her generation through hard work, determination, and a true gift. However, due to her inability to conform to the prim and proper nature of the figure skating community, her scores fail to reflect her talent. Having known only violence since birth thanks to an abusive mother (Allison Janney) and an abusive husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Harding finds herself hardened to the world in her downward spiral, one that eventually resulted in a violent assault on rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), whether or not Harding had any direct involvement.
I, Tonya is such a fascinating, bizarre little anomaly in the way it juggles so many things about this story while keeping the tone dead center. One minute, the film is a sardonic, biting comedy that’s dropping one-liners that could rival Veep or a Billy Wilder film, and the next it would be showing a deeply traumatic beating of Harding at the hands of the people she loves most. I think that these two go hand-in-hand when dealing with Tonya. Thanks to a life of abuse and violence, she grew cold and uncaring to violence in general – verbal, physical, or otherwise. I mean, she had too – how else could someone put up with it for so long? And make no mistake, Tonya is flawed. Throughout the film we see her as stubborn, coarse, violent, vulgar, unrepentant, and the worst example of the win-at-all-costs mindset. One of the best examples of the film’s editing style is the way it catches its characters in lies – Tonya will often break the fourth wall to defend herself against Jeff’s attempts to paint her as a monster, but the film also flashes back after Tonya declares the loss at the 1992 Olympics “wasn’t her fault” to show her slacking off, drinking heavily, and shirking her training. This film knows it is being told by a bunch of liars, and it wants you to know it. However, while it wants us to understand these characters are flawed, and to frown upon their flaws, it also wants us to remember that they are victims of circumstance. Tonya wasn’t born a monster – she was made one, with every swing of her mother’s hairbrush, bruise upon her face by her husband, insulting comment by a supposedly impartial judge on the circuit, or lie/harassment by the media. Furthermore, the traits that made society look down on Tonya as a figure skater – her brashness, her ego, her desire to win – would also make her a hero in almost any other circumstance. Her issue wasn’t that she was a bad person – it was that she was a woman acting this way in a sport that is completely based on appearance. While she may not have been innocent, it is worth understanding that Tonya was, and still is, a victim.
However, no film is ever sardonic just to be sardonic. There is always a reason for a film’s flippant attitude towards life in general. And here, it’s because Steven Rogers and Craig Gillespie want to critique everyone and everything. They start by critiquing the figure skating world as a whole. Unlike hockey, baseball, swimming, or football (although that’s starting to become more and more image-based), figure skating isn’t based on skill or execution. You can potentially have a flawless routine, but if you aren’t the image the judges want to present (i.e. not the perfect embodiment of the Romantic Ideal, male or female), you can’t win. The fact that winners and losers are decided not on merit, but on looks and personality is an absurd construct that defeats the purpose of sports in general. And sure, one could make the argument that if Tonya Harding was as bad a dancer as she is portrayed in the film (and evidence in the closing credits indicates that she was), then she deserved to have points taken off. However, if someone can be the second athlete in the world, and first in the league, to land the triple axel (the hardest move in female figure skating) and still come in second, then things are seriously flawed. However, issues with the figure skating community are also painted as a problem as part of a larger narrative: the degradation of the media. As portrayed by Bobby Cannavale (who should be in everything), we get a glimpse of what the media was like in the 1990s, and how it set the tone for the media in years to come (Cannavale jokes in the beginning how he was a joke in the early 90s on Hard Copy, and yet every news show today wants to be them). Somewhere along the line (or perhaps this was always the case and we were just blind to it), it became easier for the media to portray things in terms of archetypes. If someone was the “hero,” then somebody had to be the “villain.” And if everyone aspires to be the “princess” (the image of Kerrigan), then Tonya (the image of what we all actually were) had to be the villain. And when it turned out that there actually was some level of shady activity coming out of Camp Tonya, it just made it that much more enticing to paint her as evil, no matter the facts. Distort facts and lie in order to demonize her? Sure, why not? Harass her and ruin her privacy by destroying relationships and having her car vandalized? Who cares? Ignoring her own victimhood in order to destroy any shred of sympathy (or, as Tonya bluntly and emotionlessly puts it: “Nancy gets hit once and the whole world sh*ts; For me, it was an all-the-time occurrence”)? Hell yeah, burn the witch. By creating a narrative surrounding everything and pulling the strings of the entire ordeal, the media played just as big a role in the way things played out as any other player in the drama, and the film brutally, humorously, and intelligently takes them to task.
However, there is one bigger target the film wants to take aim at – one that embodies all of these themes rolled into one. And that target is America as a whole – or, more specifically, the American people. There’s an early line in the film where Diane Rawlinson, Tonya’s old coach (played by Julianne Nicholson), states during her interview: “Everyone either loves Tonya or are not big fans. Sort of like how everyone either loves America or are not big fans. Tonya was totally American.” That statement could serve as the film’s thesis: Tonya is America. She struggles to admit her own flaws, she represents our inability to respect and aid out poorest members while portraying the façade of classiness and perfection, and she is completely convinced that proving to the world that she can win is the only way she will be respected. However, she also is resourceful, cunning, and demonstrates what true hard work can accomplish (even if those above her try their damndest to undercut her). She is America at her worst and America at her best, and quite frankly, that might be the type of anti-heroine we need to embrace our best traits while admitting our worst. And sure, the film isn’t quite perfect. The only way a story like this truly works is if you treat Kerrigan as an after-thought, which is hard when a fellow human being has had her leg smashed. And it perhaps goes a little too easy on Harding and Gillooly by following the theory that their plan involved sending letters in order to scare poor Kerrigan, and psycho idiot Shawn Eckhardt went over their heads; while this makes sense, especially considering how deluded and stupid Eckhardt really was (we see tapes at the end), it also feels like a cop-out considering the film’s goal is to second-guess the liars at its center. However, while these absences hinder the film from being a masterpiece, it never stops it from getting to the heart and soul of the story its trying to tell.
This is flat-out one of the best ensembles of the year, not unlike a Christopher Guest in its specific lunacy. At the center of it all is the unrecognizable, unbelievable Margot Robbie. Robbie is a force of nature in the film, giving the year’s best performance as the wounded, savage, talented Tonya Harding. She manages to evoke in us a series of emotions, including sympathy, anger, shock, and eventually, pity. Her final scene where she is given the brutal, perhaps unfair ruling in court is one of the most heartbreaking scenes in years (the courtroom sequence banning her from skating forever stands out against recent years where a college athlete like Brock Turner can get six months time served for a much more heinous crime). Really, the only performance in the film that comes close to Robbie’s is the one-woman force of nature that is Allison Janney. Janney brings to life Harding’s ferocious mother, getting the bulk of the great one-liners that people will be wanting to quote for years, but won’t be able to due to the nature of the content. Oh, and she has a pet bird that she argues with. God, I love this performance. Janney is a national treasure. Rounding out the leads, Stan brings a realistic edge to Gillooly, playing the interviewed Jeff into a (forced) even-natured man, while the younger character shows the nuances and terrors of an emotionally unstable young man who cannot control his emotions, from the love he feels for Tonya to the anger he feels while he beats her; and Nicholson plays the only normal person in the entire film, and the only person who shows Tonya anything close to real love and support. As for the rest of the cast, there are no loose ends. Cannavale is his normally-sleazy self, in all his normally-sleazy glory. McKenna Grace continues to prove herself as the best child actress of her generation with her spitfire portrayal of young Tonya. And in the film’s biggest discovery, Paul Walter Hauser brings to life Shawn Eckhardt, a man who was convinced he was a CIA counter-terrorism agent and that he was the only one who tried to stop the whole attack on Kerrigan, despite the fact that all of this is wildly untrue. He is the film’s funniest, most absurd character, and what’s crazy is that it he is the only character not exaggerated. It’s a truly masterful performance of satire and comedy, and it’s a performance worth remembering.
I, Tonya is a masterful work of brutal, critical comedy. It skewers some incredibly serious topics by using one of the strangest moments in American pop culture. It’s script is smart, the acting perfect, and the editing sleek and cool. I loved this movie – I loved its angle, I loved its mind, and I loved the way it portrayed a woman who was somehow both a victim of the system and probably the perpetrator of a heinous crime. And while your opinion about Tonya may not change after seeing it – after all, she still most certainly had something to do with the injury of a fellow athlete – you can understand that she is still a victim of the worst of life. And maybe, just maybe, you can feel the sense of compassion that Tonya was never taught and therefore can never know.