Everyone seems to know something of Tonya Harding, and the controversy she became embroiled in before the 1994 Winter Olympics. But how many people truly know her? This is the question that Harding’s biopic raises, and the title of the film seems to say it all. We are presented not with a descriptor of Tonya Harding as a figure skater, an infamous object of media attention; not just simply “Tonya”; but, rather, I, Tonya. The title is a play on I, Claudius, and thus invokes a sense of autobiography or even Greek tragedy; but it is also a declarative assertion of self-hood from the central figure.
The film is directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers, based on actual interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gilooly. With a faux-documentary feel that makes heavy use of dramatic irony, I, Tonya pushes back against the idea of straightforward “truth.” For it is no straightforward biographical film, and its unconventional style mirrors Tonya’s own refusal to conform to expectations of how a figure skater should look or act. The darkly comic tone is one of the film’s most notable elements; color, music, and aggressive dialogue, punctuated by fourth-wall breaking interviews, maintain an energy as intense as watching any of the skating routines, and the viewer just waits to see what will go wrong next or whether all the jumps will be landed.
Throughout I, Tonya, Tonya Harding (an incredible Margot Robbie) pushes back against the labels people give her: she’s called white trash, a redneck, Trashy Tonya, or portrayed as a “pile of crap” to Nancy Kerrigan’s princess by the media. In a wonderfully haunting Sufjan Stevens song (unrelated to the film), Tonya is alternately a “delightful disaster” and “my shining American star.” Tonya Harding has been called many names in her life, most of them unflattering, and there is no escaping some of the public perception. But in the film, as Tonya says in an early interview, she wants viewers to know that she is not simply a name: she is a real person.
The pacing of the film is successful in that it allows us to get to know Tonya while before even getting to “the incident” (as it is humorously referred to by the involved parties), which is not depicted onscreen until about halfway through. The editing and pacing also make heavy use of juxtaposition, heightening the resonance of individual moments, and their irony. Though the violence inflicted on Nancy Harding is given its due, we also see the physical abuse faced by Tonya, which she speaks about matter-of-factly, with humor, not necessarily trying to be sentimental or asking for pity, but simply stating how things are.
Allison Janney is a consistent scene-stealer as Tonya’s chain-smoking mother LaVona, who gets Tonya a skating coach and in one moment vouches for her daughter’s abilities, while in the next flings verbal abuse, and knives, at her. When Tonya meets her boyfriend, and later husband, Jeff Gilooly (Sebastian Stan), they lock eyes in slow motion, and it seems romantic for a moment; Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” plays over a montage of their early relationship, from their first kiss to when Gilooly eventually becomes abusive. Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) is delusional and almost unbelievably stupid.
But the film still makes certain we see all these people as people, not just characters, and they are multifaceted, intense, colorful, and made all the more absurd because we know they really exist. Gillespie makes use of the layer of artifice from the actors portraying real people to capture the blurry boundary between fact and fiction. Margot Robbie is absolutely electric in every moment, capturing Tonya’s vulnerability but also immense strength, on one hand doubting herself—thinking she’s not pretty enough, not girly enough, not what the judges want—while also being certain enough about her own skating talents to demand from the judges a fair score. Before Tonya attempts and completes her triple axel, it is all those insulting names from earlier, those people who doubted her, that motivate her. Tonya’s raw, visceral reaction to landing the landmark triple axel jump is an astonishing moment. Her landing the jump, pumping her fists as a huge smile spreads across her face, is my favorite shot of the film, and that pure excitement and love of figure skating is evident in her every movement of her energized performance.
One theme that I, Tonya returns to is the role of the media in creating overly simplistic, reductive narratives of people, and the way the press can pit women against one other. Figure skating, like any sport, is inherently competitive, but the judges and the media seem inclined to make things personal, judging the women based on musical choices, appearance, and class as much as they do on skating ability. We constantly hear comparisons between Tonya and other girls, or between Tonya and ideals of what a woman “should” be; in an early scene, LaVona screams at a young Tonya to stop chatting with another girl who is her “competition.” Tonya even notes in one interview that she and Nancy were friends, or at least friendly.
While some critics have argued that I, Tonya unfairly glosses over Nancy Kerrigan’s trauma from the attack, to capture one woman’s suffering is not to diminish another’s. And why do we think there is only one way this narrative can be told? What is perhaps the film’s most powerful moment occurs when Tonya implicates the viewer in the events, calling the public the true attackers and saying that she was abused by “all of you.” Yes, Tonya claims some responsibility for the mistakes she made, but she also acknowledges that people often believe what they want to believe, even when situations are not so clear-cut. So, if the public had a role in letting these attacks on women happen, what does that mean for us? Perhaps what the film asks us to do is listen. The Winter Olympics in PyeongChang are coming up, and in recent weeks, we have seen more than 160 incredibly brave and powerful American gymnasts speak out against systematic abuse. Women do not have to be each other’s enemies, and they will not have their voices silenced.
Under all the format gimmicks and stylization, the meta-references and winks at the audience, there is a real heart to this story. When Tonya falls apart at the 1994 Olympics, or breaks down after having skating taken away from her, her pain is palpable and heart-wrenching. We never hear from the real Tonya Harding directly in this film, and Gillespie and Rogers imagine or recreate what the real Tonya might say. But maybe she’s been saying these things all along. I, Tonya plays with documentary and biopic conventions to create a form that feels perfectly appropriate for Tonya, making unclear what is real and what might have been fictionalized, and if those distinctions even really matter in the end. In one interview, Tonya tells the viewers that for so long, everyone wanted her to be a “different person.” But ultimately I, Tonya seeks to present us with Tonya as she is, or at least as she sees herself, whether you believe her account or not. Just letting Tonya assert her personhood, have her voice heard and her “true” self, whatever that “truth” may be, can be a powerful thing.
by Katie Duggan
Katie Duggan is studying English at Princeton University. She has lived in New Jersey her whole life so far, and has a love-hate relationship with both the Garden State and the film Garden State. She loves musicals and coming-of-age stories, and her favorite movies include Rushmore, Harold and Maude, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You can follow her on Instagram @katdug_ or on Twitter @realkatieduggan.