Carolyn Percy takes a look at I, Tonya, a compelling tale of sabotage which raises bigger questions about competition, vulnerability, and truth.
A promising young ice skater is attacked while training for the Winter Olympics, a scheme orchestrated by the ex-husband of a fellow competitor, gaining the attention of the police and FBI, ending that competitor’s career. It’s a plot that, well, belongs in a movie. But this movie plot actually happened, and the ‘I’ in I, Tonya is also the I in ‘unreliable.’ Based on the “insane” true story of Tonya Harding and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan in the runup to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, screenwriter Steven Rogers was inspired by a documentary about ice skating which featured Harding. Following this, he managed to arrange interviews with both Harding and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and found that they each remembered the events of the attack differently. And so, when it came to writing the screenplay, Rogers thought: “Well, that’s my way in: to put everyone’s point of view out there, and then let the audience decide.”
The story, therefore, plays out around a series of interviews set some time later – cleverly filmed in first person so that the interviewer is (mostly) never seen or heard and the interviewees are facing the camera, effectively making the audience the interviewer (or interrogator, depending on how you want to look at it) – cutting back to them at various instants as the interviewees react to unheard questions or interrupt, often juxtaposing how wildly the accounts differ. This ingenious approach also makes its way into the ‘traditional’ segments, with characters often breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to camera, as if it’s their whole lives, their selves, that are being interrogated, not just their memories of some specific events.
The acting is top notch, with not one actor turning in a duff performance (special mention must be given to Paul Walter Hauser, whose portrayal of the comically delusional Sean Eckhardt, as can be seen from the snippets of the various real interview footage – which the film recreates – that play out over the credits, is spookily accurate); but it’s Margot Robbie (who also co-produced the film) and Allison Janney who deserve particular attention.
Robbie’s Harding is a delightfully sharp-tongued anti-heroine: bold and talented; brash and unapologetic; vulnerable and angry; determined and self-sabotaging. Whatever your opinion of Harding herself, it will be difficult not to be moved in some way, particularly by her struggle not to fall apart during the Lillehammer Olympics and her sincere, impassioned but futile plea as the only real vocation she has in life is taken away from her. Allison Janney is a long-time friend of Rogers, and he wrote the role of Harding’s mother Latona Golden specifically for her. And Janney deserves both that BAFTA and Oscar earned for playing the mother from HELL.
It’s interesting to compare this to Lady Bird, another recent award-winning film featuring a central mother/daughter relationship. Like LaVona, Lady Bird’s mother Marion also comes from a broken home, but whereas their relationship is a little dysfunctional but ultimately strong and rooted in love, the relationship with between Latona and Tonya is toxic. She complains that she has spent everything on Tonya, resenting her for it, but at the same time, forcing her to train harder, sabotaging her further down the road by getting her into the mindset that she needs to be enraged to skate better – as Tonya’s coach Diane warns her early on, it’s not just about presenting the right image but “how she’s growing up.” Tonya herself sums it up neatly. “You cursed me.”
As the film has been gathering accolades and gaining attention, there has been something of a small backlash, mainly from those involved in the original case. Former Oregonian sports columnist J.E. Vader, for instance, who was one of those who covered the case as it unfolded in 1994, disputed the idea that Gillooly and Harding didn’t know Kerrigan was going to be physically attacked, or that Harding herself wasn’t in on the plan, stating in an article in The Oregonian, “that bleak January 1994 Jeff Gillooly told the FBI that planning for the attack included discussions of killing Kerrigan, or cutting her Achilles’ tendon, before settling for breaking her landing leg and leaving her injured wearing a duct-tape gag in her hotel room — and that Tonya Harding was well in on the plans and impatient when Kerrigan wasn’t disabled right away. (Makes Tonya a tad less sympathetic, no?)”
It’s true that, whilst a lot of what’s portrayed in the film did mostly happen as seen, some facts have been played with. This is, after all, despite the filming choices, a film for general entertainment not a documentary. So, whilst I understand the cynicism of those involved in the case, I feel they’ve rather missed the point. Casting Harding in a more positive light is merely a by-product. The film is about so much more: Toxic relationships; obsession; fighting to gain acceptance; the unfair dichotomy between talent and image in sport; hubris; who’s to blame for our flaws, and how we allow the media to build someone up only to cut them down for our consumption. The whole point is those discrepancies because, ultimately, we are the narrators and curators of our own lives and we are unreliable because our point of view skews everything. Harding might have had more knowledge than she claimed, but doesn’t LaVona also bear some blame, for her influence in shaping Tonya’s character? What about Eckhardt, who, it turns out, was the one who sent the original death threat that started everything?
Whilst it does succeed at pulling on your heart strings, the film doesn’t tell you what to believe. You could disregard the sympathetic portrayal of Harding completely if you chose.
To quote Tonya herself: “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s b******t. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the f**k it wants.” Not quite as elegant as John Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans” perhaps, but still true.
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Carolyn Percy is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.