I, Tonya is a film of tremendous compassion… for one person – Tonya Harding. Everyone else in the film – even the audience – gets skewered. The film’s title* should be the tip-off. The film is called “I, Tonya” after all, not “I, Gillooly,” “I, The Public,” or even “I, David Letterman.” This is Tonya’s story, and though everyone else – even the audience – tries to control her narrative, Tonya Harding wrests it back from them.
She does this via fourth-wall breaking, direct address to the audience in heads-up interview segments and sometimes from within the action of the story itself. This form has been a trend recently – recall The Big Short for something else based in real life and House of Cards for a purely fictional case. The technique adds a meta-layer to the narrative, inviting us to reflect on the way the story is being told. The technique lets the audience feel as if they have privileged information as well. It sets us above the proceedings.
So this is Tonya’s story, and she wants us to see her in a particular way as a victim of life-long abuse by her mother, by her (ex)husband, by the figure skating world, by the public, and by the U.S. justice system. Beyond being a story about figure skating and a terrible incident in the mid-90s, this is a story about abuse, about how being abused conditions people to accept further abuse, and about how abusing someone in any way—physically, emotionally, and even as part of the peanut gallery public laughing along with late show hosts—makes it easier to abuse that same person again or to abuse someone else. I, Tonya indicts all of us for the ways we participate in a system – this democratic society – that creates paper-thin heroes and villains to pin like badges to our chests to denote our self-assumed tribes, to the hazard of our own humanity.
I, Tonya is a reminder of the old maxim perhaps put best by Sr. Mary Lou Kownacki: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” There is truth in that statement in that it invites us to listen to and have compassion for another person. To really hear someone is to love them, so another way to put that would be to say, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve chosen to love them.” And love isn’t blind or naive. Sometime love calls for honest critique and patient, committed-to-the-process correction. But it is a choice.
Though this is Tonya Harding’s story, she isn’t necessarily likable. She endures a lot of abuse in this film, but she endures it because she is so ravenous for esteem. She is beaten and slighted and abandoned throughout this story, but she never cries. Rather, ambition drips from her eyes. And she proves willing to abuse others in the same way she has been abused if they get in her way. In I, Tonya, Tonya Harding dares us to choose to love her in full view of her faults. It seems no one ever has.
I, Tonya is a hilarious, ultimately heartbreaking film. It’s a satirical, black comedy about the invisible limits of the American Dream – the national dogma that says anyone can work hard and achieve but works like some kind of oppressive force to keep people in the position they were born into. Margot Robbie gives the performance of the year as Tonya Harding. It’s Oscar-clip broad in moments but shockingly subtle in others. National treasure Allison Janey is getting a lot of attention for her performance as Tonya’s near-filicidal mother, LaVona Fay Golden. Janney is great in her very small role, and I’d most like to see a prequel to this film about LaVona’s life, because as this is Tonya’s tale, as much as it asks us to have compassion on Tonya, it doesn’t invite us to do the same for LaVona.
One final note: the skating scenes in this are terrific. I read that Robbie did some of her own skating but that the finished film features a skilled blending of Robbie’s performance, doubles, and some CGI overlays. For my money, it’s the best special effects work I’ve seen all year, because never for a moment did I not think Robbie was completing Harding’s famous triple axels. It is astounding what filmmakers can do these days.
*The title is also a nod to Robert Graves I, Claudius, the fictional autobiography of the Roman Emperor whose life more-or-less encompassed the fall of the Roman republic into an imperial state, so I, Tonya is hinting at the same kind of paling in American society as typified by the Tonya Harding tale.