A story divided: I, TONYA’s deft perspective shifts

I, Tonya

Film Scene — opens Friday, Jan. 12

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding. — video still

For people of a certain age, the 1994 incident involving Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding and a premeditated attack on her team-rival Nancy Kerrigan has a permanent place in the memory banks. Many recall those events very clearly, as well as the drama that played out in front of America each night during the news.

One might remember clearly the consistent escalation of information that made Harding herself a household name, part of the national conversation and the butt of everyone’s jokes. It seems laughable now, in the daily throes of what seems a relentlessly devastating news cycle, but Tonya Harding was news and her story resulted in a certain level of infamy that was simultaneously trivial and insurmountable. (Until now.)

I, Tonya, from director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), which open at Film Scene on Thursday, Jan. 12 (tickets $6.50-9), combats this infamy/triviality — not head on, but from either side, flanking it on the fronts of perception and context. Whether the film is victorious in this effort is left to you, the viewer, to pass judgement on — as the film presumes you have already passed judgment on its singular subject.

It’s such presumptions, combined with a firm line drawn between truth and perspective, that makes I, Tonya a triumph of biopic filmmaking and one of the year’s singularly unique characterizations of a public figure. The tone exchanges absurdity with honesty so effortlessly that the two merge into one, like an image in motion when running your thumb up the pages of flip book.

When screenwriter Steven Rogers (Hope Floats) began his efforts to bring the story of America’s most hated athlete to the big screen, he started by interviewing her and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly regarding their lives, their tumultuous relationship and the events that lead up to Gillooly and friend Shawn Eckhardt (Harding’s bodyguard) paying a man to strike Kerrigan in the knee cap.

What Rogers obtained were two wildly different and grossly conflicting stories, and therein lays the core theme of the film and the story truly in need of telling. Because of this, the film is narratively structured through documentary-style interviews with the cast of characters, each speaking from their own perspective. When those perspectives clash, Gillespie and Rogers slyly peek through the fourth wall, involving you, the audience, in the drama and forcing you to decide what you believe.

This choice, a consistent and striking one, is a biting commentary on the social and media frenzy surrounding Harding’s life post-1994. The film seeks to remind us that so much of what we know and believe about this story was propagated by media coverage, and that we as Americans played a role in the trajectory of these events and in the vilification of Harding herself. The film is an avalanche of entertainment that balances its humor and sadness so deftly, it borders on parody that is so crazy, it must be true.

The film also provides a darker glimpse of a Tonya Harding not exploited by the Today Show, and offers a perspective into the life she experienced and the destructive life she has led. It doesn’t shy away from forcing Harding to take responsibility for certain choices she has made regarding her career and professionalism. This is a risky perspective to take when portraying a person so universally disliked based on singular perspectives.

Harding is not altogether likable or sympathetic — until she is. The film is not desiring to answer questions or definitively prove guilt or assign blame. Its evident goal is to simply to show an unlikely series of events, carried out by absurd, complicated and nuanced individuals. In 1994 the whole world passed judgement, and I, Tonya is not seeking to provide Harding with any form of absolution. It is presenting an untried perspective in the form of empathy.

Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding. — video still

Margot Robbie is truly outstanding as Harding with a fearless, vanity-free performance that is equal parts defiance and vulnerability; not unlike Harding herself. She does not shy away from the unlikable aspects of Harding, but the performance is so grounded in honesty, anxiety and ambition that she never sinks into the cartoon villain a lesser performer might have presented. Robbie passionately presents the person while juggling the persona: steak knives, broken laces and crocodile tears.

She’s in excellent company with a funny, thoughtful and authentic supporting cast featuring two stellar standouts. Sebastian Stan, widely known to the world as the Winter Soldier in Marvel’s Captain America franchise, gives a career best performance as Gillooly, Harding’s misguided, schlubby and abusive lover-husband-then-lover-again. Stan portrays Gillooly without judgement and offers a man who seemingly no longer knows the truth, but so desperately wants to be the story being told.

He mirrors, in more ways than one, the vicious, throat-tightening performance of Allison Janney as Lavona Fay Golden, Harding’s self-important, resentful mother and truly the film’s closest representation of a villain. Janney is a revelation in her commitment to Lavona’s acidic and scathing ability to cut down anyone she perceives as her better, which, both she and the audience conclude, is everyone. Janney is an actress of great accomplishment and a storied career of risky, emboldened performances, and this is one that will most likely be written in her ledger with a solid gold pen.

It’s possible the film will come under fire for not entirely vilifying Harding in the context of her life and the events surrounding the 1994 Winter Olympics. But it’s in this that I, Tonya is perhaps the finest biopic of recent years, as it resists the inclination to pick a side or frame its subject in a manner that rewrites the ugly truths (looking at you, The Greatest Showman) or dismiss their actions in order to have them pointed and laughed at (and also at you, The Disaster Artist).

What Gillespie and Rogers present to you is a woman who is extremely talented, who has had a hard life, and who made some serious mistakes. It also shows the actions of those around her and it lets you decide how you feel about it. Wherever you land on that slippery bed of ice, it’s a sharp and relevant reminder that people have stories that transcend individual events. You are free to pass judgement on those stories, but they are still theirs to tell.

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