Remember Tonya Harding? She was that American ice-skater who bashed her opponent’s knee in with an iron rod, right? When was that? Late Eighties, no? What was the name of the other skater? Nancy… something. Hmmm. Nancy Kerrigan, yeah, that’s it. And that was just before the Olympics in Atlanta? Or Alberta?
Sometimes we think we know who or what is talked about when we hear a word or a name, but often we don’t. What we think we know might be not only patchy, but pretty far from the truth. If the story of a life is told to you in the form of autobiography, biography, documentary or fictionalized feature, that life is already filtered and rendered from a point of view that brings its own bias, its own agenda. There might be much fewer differences between a documentary about Tonya Harding and a fictionalized movie about her than we might think, right? Not because fiction tries to be close to what happened, but because a documentary has to leave out stuff and make tenuous connections where there really aren’t any while leaving out some obvious ones. I, Tonya toys with the idea that, in hindsight, the truth is still graspable in full.Postmodern storytelling is often enough an anemic exercise, maybe more so in literature than on film. The self-referential bits in I, Tonya work just wonderfully. This is a movie very much about storytelling, and it’s worth seeing just for that. The main characters not only talk into the camera when interviewed, but also break the fourth wall in the middle of a scene to explain something to you, even during domestic abuse or sex. Some reviews have stated that the movie submits the real Tonya Harding to ridicule. I am not sure that’s true because the movie is labelled as fiction, not as a documentary, and it plays fast and loose with the truth. I came out of the theatre feeling a fair bit of sympathy for Tonya, fully aware that I had seen the fictional Tonya, not the real one. Although she seemed to have known that there were plans to prevent Kerrigan from competing, it was unclear if those plans involved physical harm. She wasn’t present when Kerrigan got hurt, but she was called the ice witch even before the incident. Harding was pitted as the bad girl against Nancy Kerrigan’s proper image. “People want a wholesome American family,” one of the judges tells her. For the record: Nancy Kerrigan’s mum is blind, and her dad was a welder at the rink where she trained. Not too wholesome, either.
There are excellent performances in the film, first of all Margot Robbie as Tonya, from as young as 15 years old, even if she was 27 at the time of filming. Because the movie always comes to us with a wink, we let it get away with it. And Robbie is as good as McDormand’s Mildred Hayes. There is Allison Janney, who has a history of playing unlikeable mother figures, maybe not in Juno, but most definitely in Away We Go. Here, she beats, pushes and insults her daughter into a successful skating career. And there is Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly, Tonya’s abusive husband, who sort of planned the Kerrigan incident, or maybe he didn’t.
I probably liked I, Tonya not as much as I am letting you believe, but here’s the thing: give me a flawed but well-told story any day over a tired old genre exercise. I, Tonya only looks like a sports movie: there is no 11th hour, deus-ex-machina miraculous victory at the last moment. Okay, fine, yes, the movie has two minor flaws: There are too many scenes in which Tonya leaves Jeff and then goes back to him, only to leave him again. And the soundtrack is happy to teach us what to think about some of the scenes, although the songs used are great and fit the atmosphere of the movie.
So what about Tonya Harding? She was the first skater to land a triple axel on an international level. To this day, only six people have been able to do that. Currently, there is no-one available, and the filmmakers had to resort to CGI. If there had been a skater able to do a triple axel, she (or he) wouldn’t have agreed to do it for the movie for fear of injury, because landing a triple axel is your ticket to the Olympics, and you don’t want to risk injury for a movie. Tonya wins.