I knew going in that this movie hit two of my favorite topics: true crime and figure skating. But I didn’t know much else. “The Incident,” as the film refers to the attack on Tonya Harding’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan, happened the year before I was born. And all the details seem to have become muddled over time. But this is the film’s strength. What could have easily been a schlocky biopic instead relies heavily on the boundary between truth and falsehood, creating an extremely satisfying examination of what it means to be a public figure.
The film’s decision to tell Harding’s story in pretty much the exact opposite of a straightforward manner is its strength. Instead, it opts for giving perspectives from everyone, without necessarily indicating that any one is more correct than the others—though many of the incidents it depicts are based in fact. It cuts between Harding’s backstory and staged present-day interviews with Harding (Margot Robbie), her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her mother LaVona Golden (Alison Janney), and others, such as a reporter for a 90s tabloid or Harding’s coaches. Each gives their interpretation of the events we see unfolding in the other half of the movie. But these scenes, too, are often narrated over with a fourth-wall-breaking wink. It’s like a darkly comedic Rashomon.
This tone doesn’t sound like it should work for a story that often delves into abuse, both familial and spousal, as well as “The Incident” itself. But for the most part, it does, especially due to the talent of its stars. Janney as the abusive mother-coach figure Golden is larger than life and strangely magnetic, even when she’s beating her own daughter with a hairbrush in a bathroom after a poor performance. She’s acerbic and cutting, but utterly unremorseful. It’s rather reminiscent of J.K. Simmons’s performance in Whiplash. Stan as Gillooley is definitely an unsung standout; he’s as unlikeable as Janney, with none of the scene-stealing one-liners, but sells the character wholeheartedly as a man desperate to keep hold of Harding at whatever cost, both pathetic and terrifying.
But the real star is, obviously, Margot Robbie. Harding is a difficult character—a skating powerhouse with ambitions stymied by the classist expectations of the sport, a survivor of horrifying abuse at the hands of her loved ones, but also a participant in one of the sport’s most well-known violent scandals. A victim and a villain. Robbie relishes in Harding’s larger-than-life brash personality, biting back lines like “Nancy Kerrigan gets whacked in the knee one time and everyone freaks out. I got hit my whole life, you don’t see me complaining,” with a cigarette nonchalantly perched in one hand. But she’s also quiet and sad, with emotive blue eyes. In a scene that drives home the prejudice Harding faced as a professional, she talks to a figure skating judge who admitted that her low scores were due to her less-than-elegant image. “I don’t have a wholesome American family,” she says, in a low voice, disappearing into her role as a woman barely into her twenties, without a high school degree, without any form of support, and without much else beyond her skating talent.
And that’s why this film succeeds. It doesn’t try to paint Harding as a scheming, backstabbing, win-at-all-costs skater, nor does it cast her as an innocent victim of circumstance. It just tells us stories, without condemnation. Stories of her mother banning her from bathroom breaks, forcing her to urinate on the ice; of Harding sewing her own skating costumes, because she couldn’t afford the fancy, professionally made ones her competitors wore, and being marked down for them; of her marrying a man who abused her, and then filing a restraining order against him, and then going back to him. But also stories of her landing the first triple axel in women’s competition and pushing her way to the podium, judges’ prejudices be damned. And, of course, stories of what the film chooses to depict as her decision to try and send Kerrigan threatening letters as a form of psychological manipulation, which were twisted into the assault that came to define her career.
As I stated at the beginning, I don’t know whether or not Harding herself orchestrated the attack. The film shows it as a twisted game of telephone culminating in an attack perpetrated by, as the film describes them, “the two biggest boobs in a story entirely filled with boobs.” (Again, it shouldn’t be funny, but it is. In fact, it’s one of the funniest sequences in the entire movie.) Many others believe Harding herself was in on the plan. I don’t really have a stake in either side. What matters more is Harding’s underdog story before the incident, and her crucifixion in the media.
This storyline is especially relevant now, having watched the 2018 U.S. Figure Skating Championships and the ensuing discussion of the Olympic team pickings. Ashley Wagner, who made headlines in 2014 when she came in fourth place and was sent to the Olympics instead of third place finisher Mirai Nagasu, again placed fourth but wasn’t chosen for the team this year. Almost immediately, she lashed out, claiming that she was underscored by the judges despite having made some costly errors. It’s hard to ignore, though, that Wagner is perky and blonde, hewing much closer to the classical American ice princess image than Nagasu, the daughter of Japanese immigrants, but also the third American female skater to land the triple axel in competition. It’s stories like these, of people fighting against the stifling images placed on them by public perception, that drive figure skating, and it’s here that I, Tonya succeeded.
As of 2018, TM2M will be rating films (as well as reviewing them) on a 5-star scale.
I, Tonya: 4/5