I, Tonya (2017)
Craig Gillespie's biopic-meets-black-comedy has received high marks from critics and audiences alike, and for good reason. Resurrecting the 1994 scandal surrounding figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan while applying a fresh coat of hindsight and a healthy dose of context, audiences are given a blunt, voyeuristic perspective on Harding & Co. I'll say up front that it's a great movie; you should see it, especially if you remember watching the whole ugly thing unfold on television over twenty years ago. And I'll admit here that I'm aiming to examine not so much film as the bigger picture - the question of why we would ever admire such a thing as I, Tonya.
A good starting point might be - as it was for me, being what I'd read prior to seeing the film itself - this very recent interview with Tonya Harding from the New York Times. I believe Ms. Brodesser-Akner, in writing the piece, set out to be fair, to give Ms. Harding the opportunity to tell her side of the story. Even within the article, she references a currently popular thread of criticism towards not only the exploitative, anti-Tonya media back in the '90s but also this film for playing Harding's tragedy somewhat as comedy. Yet I found myself laughing in a way at Tonya Harding in the interview, and wondered if the article meant to subtly lampoon its subject or if I'm just running short on empathy these days.
Certainly this film should be called a comedy, because it's funny (too obvious?). Maybe it gets away with this by later scolding you somehow for laughing, but let's keep those blinders off for a moment. We laugh as Tonya automatically blames mitigating circumstances instead of herself. We laugh when she contradicts herself or anyone else or even the plain facts. We laugh with her when she makes a joke at her own expense, but then we aren't really laughing with her, are we? We laugh even though it could fairly be said we've chosen to give her a chance by watching this movie in the first place. Maybe we laugh because it lets us escape the pain we're seeing her live through, or maybe that's not it at all.
The great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote, "It is easy to be wise after the event." And while this is true, it's also easy to know that there are simply some ideas that remain impervious to the effects of time and truth. Steve Rogers' elegantly irreverent script weaves our unspoken assumptions and prejudices into the "true" story, winking as his characters protest the accuracy of their own portrayals. Although I, Tonya does manage to clear up some of the fuzzier details surrounding the life and fate of Tonya Harding, it smartly refuses to cast her as a hapless victim.
Given the circumstances, we might be tempted to ask ourselves if the on-screen Tonya is more flawed than she deserves to be, because we can contextualize (or, in the least, better understand) her faults in the film's larger scope. Her abusive mother, her absent father, her cowardly first husband, and even the snooty figure-skating establishment all take a heavy hand to molding The Tonya Harding. But then, if we lay all of her blemishes at the alter of disadvantage and misfortune, wouldn't that also require us to explain her best qualities as merely the lucky byproducts of that tragic environment? And then suddenly we've veered very near the otherwise unsettling self-delusions of LaVona Golden (played most excellently by Allison Janney).
To suggest that I, Tonya plays tragedy for comedy at Harding's expense completely miss the point of the film, because that suggestion dehumanizes her. Trying to catalog her as either "good" or "bad", "victim" or "villain" was the Original Sin of the trigger-happy media back in '94. It really isn't far removed from the error in assuming that her mother's abuse was the only factor behind her incredible athletic achievements. The feat of this film is in its palette beyond black and white, painting a (sometimes painfully) honest portrait of a very real person we've otherwise only ever seen in thirty-second news clips.
I used the word "voyeuristic" earlier, and for a reason. The premise of I, Tonya really is that you'll get a good look at all the ugly bits and pieces behind one of America's favorite punching bags. You do get that good look; it's a very different world than most of us know, and at times it's hilarious. And yes, we are laughing at someone who experienced pain, who struggled, who was in so many sad ways a victim. But in that context we're also able to recognize ourselves, our own obstacles along with our own absurd rationalizations - we've all told ourselves what we must to make it through the day. We recognize that we are the products not only of our superior or inferior environments, but also of our own grit and intention.
Doyle also wrote, "Some facts should be suppressed, or, at least, a just sense of proportion should be observed in treating them." I, Tonya has its own version of that, and Margot Robbie spits it out as fiercely as once might imagine Tonya Harding herself would: "There's no such thing as truth. It's bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants."
Rating: 4/5 Stars
I absolutely recommend seeing I, Tonya. It's a great ride, sure, and it's a lot of fun. But I also think you'll come away a little more inquisitive than you went in, asking yourself bigger questions (and, hopefully, more important ones) than "did she do it?"
Let me know what you think!