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“I, Tonya” betrays its central character

“I, Tonya” betrays its central character

The film’s tricksy, post-modern framework turns her tough and violent life into a joke

The film’s tricksy, post-modern framework turns her tough and violent life into a joke

Nicholas Barber | March 1st 2018

“I, Tonya” tells the true story of Tonya Harding, an American figure-skating champion who was banned from the sport after her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was assaulted in 1994. Or maybe that should be the true stories, plural. What happened, according to the press notes, was that the film’s screenwriter, Steven Rogers, interviewed Harding and her ex-husband Gillooly. These conversations turned out to be “wildly contradictory”. When their accounts didn’t match up, he thought, “Well, that’s my way in: to put everyone’s point of view out there, and then let the audience decide.”

That’s more or less what he does. Scenes from Harding’s various rises and falls are interspersed with dramatised interview snippets in which Tonya (Margot Robbie), Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and Harding’s poisonous mother LaVona (Allison Janney) disagree about her tumultuous childhood and marriage in Portland, Oregon, and about the so-called “incident” just before the Lillehammer Winter Olympics, in which an assailant attempted to break Kerrigan’s leg with a steel baton. To reinforce the notion that there is no singular, definitive version of events, the characters sometimes break the fourth wall, mid-scene, to comment on the accuracy or otherwise of what we’re seeing. When Tonya is getting into shape by copying training exercises from the “Rocky” films, for instance, her coach turns to the camera and blurts: “She actually did this!” The zany mockumentary stylings give “I, Tonya” much of its fizzing energy and its comedy. But they also betray Harding.

The problem with Rogers’ framework is that it puts too much emphasis on the discrepancies between Tonya and Jeff’s anecdotes. It treats those discrepancies as if they are more significant than the verifiable facts of her tough upbringing, her battles with the figure-skating establishment, her athletic achievements, and the attack on Kerrigan. And yet the “wildly contradictory” interviews aren’t contradictory all that often: the only major divergences concern domestic violence. “He beat the hell out of me,” says Tonya, but the filmmakers aren’t so sure. In one scene, Tonya fires a shotgun at Jeff, and then declares, “I never did this.” In another scene, Jeff slams Tonya’s head into a mirror, but Jeff assures the viewer that nothing of the sort ever occurred. It’s a disastrously misjudged moment. Not only does it turn spousal abuse into a joke, it gives us permission to enjoy all of Harding’s traumas from a distance, as if they were part of a legend, a white-trash tall tale – which is precisely what the film scolds the general public for doing.

Considering that Robbie also appeared in “The Big Short” in 2015, it’s fair to assume that Adam McKay’s financial-crash docudrama was an influence; that film, too, had characters complaining that they were being misrepresented. Before that, Michael Bay’s “Pain and Gain” (2013) jazzed up its non-fiction kidnapping farce with “They Really Did This” captions. And back in 2003, “American Splendor”, a biopic of the comic-book writer, Harvey Pekar, had Pekar himself grumbling about his portrayal.

But in those cases the postmodern games were more easily justified. “The Big Short” was marshalling dozens of testimonies and dealing with impossibly complicated investment schemes. The misadventures in “Pain and Gain” were so far-fetched that we wouldn’t have believed them if the captions hadn’t asked us to. And a central theme of “American Splendor” was the way in which Pekar and his illustrators turned his life into art.

In the case of “I, Tonya”, though, the “alternative facts” gimmickry is horribly inappropriate. The script’s he-says-she-says ambivalence comes across as a failure of nerve – a dereliction of duty, even. And its timing could hardly be worse. The leading lights in the #MeToo movement work in Hollywood, and their argument is that we should always listen to women’s claims of abuse. How bizarre, then, that a Hollywood movie should receive three Oscar nominations while casting doubt on Harding’s own claims. And how cruelly ironic that that movie should have the first-person title, “I, Tonya”.

“I, Tonya, I, Jeff, and I, LaVona” might have been more appropriate.