“I was loved for a moment,” Tonya Harding explains. “Then I was hated. Then I was a punch line.” She delivers this summary directly into the lens, and then turns it back: “It was like being abused by you. All of you. You were my attackers.” She’s talking about media, the people on the other side of the camera. Or is she?
Those direct-to-camera interviews are an organizational tool in Craig Gillespie’s I, Tonya, and if you’re too young to remember who Tonya Harding is, let me first say “Hello, youths,” and secondly tell you that she was a woman’s figure skating champion who did not come from the monied, upper-class environs of her fellow skaters. Early in Tonya, she owns up, with some pride, to her “redneck” background — a background that became a particularly inescapable part of her narrative in 1994, when she was accused of conspiring with boyfriend Jeff Gillooly and his idiot friends to assault rival skater Nancy Kerrigan.
Harding did, in fact, become a punchline, and I, Tonya is a very funny movie — profane, sharp-edged, and wittily crafted. But by the time her little-girl incarnation is standing in the street screaming “TAKE ME WITH YOU” at her departing father, it’s clear that it’s won’t all be fun and games, and the neat trick of Gillespie’s movie is how he both appreciates the unavoidable buffoonery of Harding’s story, and acknowledges the trial that was her life.
Margot Robbie stars as Tonya, and it’s easily her finest acting to date. She’s totally credible on the ice — presumably with the aid of doubles and effects, but still, it’s seamless. (Gillespie also manages to make a dull sport exciting for non-fans, and if you think that’s easy, see Battle of the Sexes). Robbie’s performance and Steven Rogers’ script hone in on how her mother (a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, and hilarious Allison Janney) broke her down without bothering to build her back up, which affected her both as an athlete and a woman. Recalling her biggest triumph, successfully landing the tricky “triple axle,” the older, reflective Harding beams, “For the first time, I knew, I knew, I was the best figure skater in the world. At one time.” After a tiny beat, she continues, “Sorry, nobody really asks me about this anymore,” and Robbie tosses that last line off, but you can hear the pain in her voice.
When Jeff (Sebastian Stan) tells her, early in their courtship, “You’re so fuckin’ pretty,” and she responds, earnestly, “No I’m not,” she looks right at him, immediately after, to see what happens. It’s a little moment, but she breaks your heart; it’s so clear that she’s only been the recipient of emotional and physical abuse. And then, of course, she ends up getting both from him too, as the film’s middle section becomes a scarily visceral portrait of an abusive marriage, and the relationship with her mother that normalized it.
(Occasionally, the present-day interview-subject iteration of Harding will ask permission to “interrupt for a second,” so I’ll do the same to voice a single, out of proportion, pet peeve complaint: I, Tonya has far too many needle drops from pop songs that are not only overused, but usually playing in the wrong damn decade: “Spirit in the Sky,” “Shooting Star,” and “Can’t You See” in the ’80s, “Gone Daddy Gone,” “Gloria,” “Barracuda,” and “Goodbye Stranger” in the ’90s. And they use “The Chain” for a centerpiece sequence, not six damn months after Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. There’s a whole world of recorded music out there! Use more of it! Interruption over.)
What’s most striking about I, Tonya is its infectious energy, manifested in its jazzy, unexpected edits and the inventive visual and narrative flourishes, reminiscent of the little tricks and tics in something like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. And it’s self-aware without getting cutesy; we’re told early on that the interviews conflict wildly, so we’ll see Tonya enact something Jeff testified to, while announcing “This is bullshit, never did this,” directly to camera, or Momma Harding will pop up occasionally with objections like “Well, my storyline is disappearing now, what the fuck.”
When they finally get to the Kerrigan incident - Tonya: “It’s what you all came for, folks. The fucking INCIDENT!” - Gillespie plays it as a Coen-style moron criminal enterprise (perpetrated, we’re told, by “two of the biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs”). Yet by that point in the story, it’s almost an afterthought, so wrapped up are we in not only the picture’s cleverness, but the complexity of its portraiture. I, Tonya portrays its protagonist sympathetically without soft-soaping who she is or what she did, and like last year’s American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, it reexamines an exploitative tabloid sensation through a lens of contemporary feminism and class consciousness; in doing so, it forces us to rethink our old assumptions and prejudices. For a movie to do all that, and then to land as many laughs as this one does on top of that, is something like a miracle.