Tonya Harding was a bug in the system- an anomaly in America’s most pristine, appearance obsessed sport. Despite coming from poverty and abuse, having to sew her own dresses because she couldn’t afford the $5,000 ones the other girls had, she still reached the level of best female figure skater in the world- for a time. This was all before “the incident” happened- “the reason you all came,” as the film’s unreliable narrators tell the audience through a shattered fourth wall about halfway through the film. Despite her unlikely rise through a sport where your victory depends not just on skating but literally on whether judges like you or not- America put her back in her place, stamping her back down where we thought she belonged.
I, Tonya, the latest from Aussie director Craig Gillespie (Lars & The Real Girl, The Finest Hours) takes more than a few cues from the Martin Scorsese playbook to tell this story, as well as David O. Russell’s (who himself borrowed heavily from Scorsese). It’s being called “Goodfellas on ice,” but it’s more like a gender-flipped Raging Bull with a sense of humor- but one where the husband is still the abuser. We become intimately familiar with Tonya and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (a revelatory Sebastian Stan), who starts beating her three months into their relationship and never really lets up. She has a habit of letting him back in again and again because abuse has become so normalized for her, having survived the vitriolic hate and emotional withholding of her own mother, LaVona (Allison Janney, a lock for best supporting actress nomination).
Raging Bull is often called “the best sports movie of all time,” and while the boxing scenes are indeed jaw dropping to watch even today, it’s as much a film about domestic violence as it is about fame and boxing. I, Tonya follows that mold, as the abuse Tonya suffers seems to follow her around like a poltergeist, both pushing her forward on the ice and eventually causing her to become her own worst enemy. And yet while the film sympathizes with her, it never pities her. It simply makes her- and even her abusers- human. This is no small feat, and thanks in part to the creative docudrama style at play, where “interviews” with Tonya, Jeff, and LaVona slice and dice the story into a competition of unreliable narrative threads. Characters make claims that they never did something, then in the next scene they’re doing that very thing. I, Tonya speaks to our inherent need to be the heroes of our own story, and how that clashes with the demands of a good story, which require there to be a villain.
To this end, it serves as a sort of origin story for the 24 hour news cycle. When Tonya’s friend and rival Nancy Kerrigan’s knee got bashed in by some associates of her then-ex Jeff, it was January of 1994. O.J. got in his white Ford Bronco only six months later. It was a hell of a year for big crazy American stories, and one that I remember well. I was in 2nd grade at the time and I have strong memories of these events being on television round the clock, and being common topics of adult conversations. Yet all I ever took away from that coverage was that Tonya Harding was a crazy, vengeful woman- less beautiful than Nancy and supremely jealous of her friend’s good fortune. I even thought for a time that Tonya herself did the bashing (which was sadly not an uncommon belief). My, and many others, need for a good, “juicy” story, and for someone to laugh at, outweighed my need to know the facts of what really happened (and whether Tonya was even really involved at all).
As the incident kicks into high gear, Tonya seems to disappear from the film, which threatens to upend its strengths altogether, but further highlights how not in control she was of her own story. Instead we see the men in her life taking her career and playing with it like 10 year old boys who found a cache of fireworks- making temporary ruins out of their own lives but permanent ones out of her career.
For Tonya Harding, life seemed to be endless layers of insult and injury. Watching I, Tonya unfold feels like a witnessing a courageous (yet entertaining and hilarious all the same) act of empathy and truth telling- one that more or less offers her total redemption. While it’s smart to be skeptical of any such conclusion, after witnessing all the shit she had to go through, it’s hard not to feel like she deserves it. It’s also hard not to feel like a total asshole for ever laughing at her in the first place. It’s the type of humbling look in the mirror we could all stand to do more of in our day and age.
I, Tonya opens in Philly theaters today.