Sufjan Stevens released a song not too long ago as an elegy to Tonya Harding. Being the modern-day folk poet that he is, he cast her as a tragic hero, championing her as a definitive portrait of an All-American girl, larger-than-life, unapologetic, and ultimately beaten back by society at large.
I will date myself and say that I don’t remember much about Tonya Harding because I was barely born when she was in the public spotlight. So, I come at the events as an “impartial” observer or at least one who lacks any clear understanding of what her story was really like in the heat of the moment.
Thus, Stevens’ song and this film, I, Tonya, were necessary for me as obvious mechanisms of empathy. Emphatically the film proves that Tonya Harding — at least for me — cannot be cast as a hero and I don’t necessarily think that she was expecting that. But what has been done on her behalf is equally vital. Finally, it seems like others have been willing to speak up on her behalf in telling a more multifaceted even sympathetic side of the story.
Her life and times as detailed in Craig Gillespie’s film functions as a nearly absurd black comedy as it plunges into familial discord and moments you could hardly make up if you tried. But what we would do well not to forget is that this is a dramatization of someone’s life — someone with inherent worth even as she’s being berated and abused by a mother and then abused by her husband and finally raked over the coals by the mass media.
If anything, this film is an indication that Tonya’s life does have meaning. The flaws are there but also present is immense trauma and the subsequent tenacity that made her the first female skater to ever land a triple axel.
Screenwriter Steve Rogers’ work employs slightly pretentious talking head moments and fourth-wall breaking monologues that were used in a similar fashion to Experimenter (2015), except it’s hardly a gimmick and there’s a great deal of resonance within the madness of narrative dissonance with a smattering of different perspectives colliding.
Because Tonya’s story really is recalled and remembered in so many different ways by all sorts of people with their facts conveniently conflicting. First, there’s Tonya herself (Margot Robbie) who was the skating prodigy by the age of 4 and despite a lack of education, her enduring work ethic made her one of the finest American skaters to ever grace the ice.
Allison Janney is as acidic and foul-mouthed as they come, pushing the envelope as Tonya’s ultra-vitriolic mother LaVona who never seems content, continually berating her daughter in all regards because every penny she makes as a waitress goes into her lessons. Love is not in her lexicon.
Then there’s the infamous Jeff Gillooly with Sebastian Stan donning that regrettable mustache as the awkward boyfriend who no doubt loved Tonya at one point and yet still embroils her in an unhealthy and abusive relationship. His slobbish oaf of a friend Shawn Eckhart, who fancies himself a counterterrorism expert of some kind, is a surprisingly authentic caricature. He’s got grand delusions of how they will sabotage Nancy Kerrigan’s chances in the Olympics by unleashing an onslaught of psychological warfare.
Jeff condones the plans but soon he’s shelling out $1,000 that disappears after Shawn gives it to a pair of dubious contacts. Little does he know that this will devolve into “The Incident” after Shawn okays a hit and an equally vacuous nobody, Shane Shant, injures Kerrigan with a police baton. They’re so inept that the FBI is soon on their trail. First, it’s Shawn, then his fingers point to Jeff, and finally, Tonya is implicated. Right here we have the clearest embodiment of both the real-life farce the and tragedy of Harding all rolled into one.
The extensive soundtrack is utilized not only as casual character development but an instant accessibility point in denoting either an era or a mood. In fact, it’s one of the few constants in a story that regularly hurtles back and forth between different points of views, time frames, and the like. Hearing Norman Greenbaum, Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp, Chicago, Doris Day and a whole host of others offer instant touchstones throughout.
For these very reasons I, Tonya is the most inventive biopic in narrative terms that I can remember since Brian Wilson’s story told so evocatively in Love & Mercy (2014). There is a similar exploration going on here as we try and make sense of someone who has gained, in this case, so much notoriety whether it was totally deserved or not. And the beauty of the picture is that it never fully divulges the truth because in so many words “the truth” in the lowercase sense is relative and like innumerable pieces of history how are we to say that we have the definitive answer?
The media’s part in all of this feels almost damning and yet we cannot condemn them without condemning ourselves too. Some David Letterman footage articulates the ubiquitous reality that Tonya Harding became a punchline in the wake of the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994 even as she received a lifetime ban from skating. Should I feel sorry for Tonya Harding? I’m not sure. Regardless, it’s a sorry affair.
Though it starts to paint some layers of Harding’s backstory and her working-class roots rubbing up against the protocols of standardized perfectly primped and costumed female figure skaters, that’s not necessarily the film’s allure. It gets its zing, admittedly from the almost soap-operatic twists. And yet with anything, if that is what gets you to stay and kept the media involved in the story for such a long time, maybe it’s good that time has passed.
Even as the script tries to put the pieces together it can hardly succeed perfectly though it does give us something to work with. Again, it all comes down to some form of greater understanding. But then again, Tonya Harding probably doesn’t care about what others think about her or about anyone trying to mount a defense on her behalf. So be it.
Now, all that seems left to make is a Nancy Kerrigan movie. Yes, she was cast as the perfect ideal, Snow White on Ice, but as with any media fixation, it cannot always serve true justice nor capture the hardships in a person’s life. Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, and nearly every other person on God’s green earth is a testament of that. As Sufjan puts it only God knows what they are.
Tonya Harding, my star
Well this world is a cold one
But it takes one to know one
And God only knows what you are
Just some Portland white trash
You confronted your sorrow
Like there was no tomorrow
While the rest of the world only laughed
Triple axel on high
A delightful disaster
You jumped farther and faster
You were always so full of surprises
Are your laces untied?
What’s the frown on your face for?
And just what are the skates for now?
Tell me which is your good side?
Are you lonely at night?
Do you miss all the glory
And the mythical story
Of the Olympian life?
Yamaguchi in red
She had high rise and roses
And red-carpet poses
And her outfit was splendid
Nancy Kerrigan’s charm
Well she took quite a beating
So you’re not above cheating
Can you blame her for crying?
Tonya, you were the brightest
Yeah you rose from the ashes
And survived all the crashes
Wiping the blood from your white tights
Has the world had its fun?
Yeah they’ll make such a hassle
And they’ll build you a castle
Then destroy it when they’re done
Tonya Harding, my friend
Well this world is a bitch, girl
Don’t end up in a ditch, girl
I’ll be watching you close to the end
So fight on as you are
My American princess
May God bless you with incense
You’re my shining American star
~Tonya Harding by Sufjan Stevens