Practically everyone knows of Tonya Harding, the figure skater connected with kneecapping her competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics. But how many know the story leading up to that dramatic incident? How many skip the article and rely solely on headlines to make an assumption? Fake news can be blamed some of the time, but ignorance is a lot more prolific.
Opening with the titles: “Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” I, Tonya tries to set the record straight with a Shakespearean farce that is both laugh-out-loud funny and deeply painful. Written by Steven Rodgers and directed by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya covers the skater’s upbringing, career, Olympic flame-out and aftermath through dramatic scenes, faux-documentary interviews and occasional asides to the camera.
Harding (played exquisitely by Margot Robbie) is a gifted figure skater, but her foul-mouthed, abusive mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), treats her with utmost disdain. Dismissing her as “the fifth child of husband number four,” LaVona makes the necessary sacrifices to ensure Harding will develop as a skater but refuses to let Harding forget those sacrifices — sometimes with barbed words, sometimes with blunt instruments. A happy home this is not.
Abuse, both mental and physical, play a key role in Harding’s life; first from her mother, then from her boyfriend/husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and then as as a celebrity. Reflecting in one of the movie’s many interviews, Harding explains: “I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was just a punch line. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you.”
But in a more profound sense, I, Tonya is about the American class system — a system most refuse to acknowledge. Born into a poor and broken home, Harding couldn’t escape the hand she was dealt no matter how good her abilities were. In one scene, Harding confronts a skating judge who consistently gives her low marks. The answer given is the one she fears most: Harding is not the wholesome American image the skating committee wants. To which Harding responds, “I don’t have a wholesome American family. Why can’t it just be about the skating?”
In America, it’s never just about any one thing, it’s about the total package, the wholesome image. And, more often than not, that image is a lie. Norman Rockwell paintings may look nice, but they don’t look real.
I, Tonya does. Especially when the movie goes for broke, reveling in obscenity, crassness and pain. As Harding preps for her final skate, she applies stage makeup; it looks clownish and grotesque and might cover a bruise or two, but it doesn’t come close to masking the pain within. She smiles, but it doesn’t help.
It’s not a pretty picture but it looks a hell of a lot more real than a Norman Rockwell Christmas card. And when we’re being honest with ourselves, it’s what we look like, deep down inside.