“I was loved for a minute, then I was hated.”
Figure skating is all about elegance and grace. So when in 1994 the sport took on a violent aspect with an attack on a top skater before the Olympics, it became one of the early examples of TV tabloid journalism. I, Tonya tells the story of Tonya Harding who was at the center of the controversy because her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly masterminded the attack on a rival skater. In the days and weeks that followed the story became more sensationalized by the day. Screenwriter/producer Steve Rogers has crafted a dark comedy from the strange, almost absurdist, true events. It is based in part on interviews Rogers did with Harding and Gillooly, now in their 40s. The widely different stories each told became the structure for the film.
The story follows the life of Harding (Margot Robbie) from childhood to the present day. Even before “The Incident”, she never really fit well into the skating world, in spite of her talent and skill. She came from an abusive household. Her mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) was both physically and emotionally violent. Her escape was to marry Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) at an early age. This too turned into a violent, abusive relationship. It should be pointed out that Harding was not just a victim, but could be violent herself. All of this contributed to a low self-image. At times, she felt like she deserved the abuse. And much of her competitiveness was an attempt to be loved.
Much of the humor of the film comes from the personalities. LaVona Golden is an especially over the top character (and played to the hilt by Janney). It’s hard to image a mother so cruel and crude, yet we can’t get enough of her on screen. Likewise, the relationship between Harding and Gillooly, often with sudden explosive violence, may seem too dark for humor, yet we can’t help but follow along because the story is told in such an appealing style.
The film takes its time getting to The Incident, but when it does make it into the story, it is the beginning of one of the all time great comedies of errors. When we speak of the media circus that developed because of it, circus is the appropriate word because the clowns take center stage. Again here, the story is told from different perspectives, so there is more than one version of what happened.
Since there are multiple versions of the same story, this becomes a study on how we can know the truth. The memories of what happened are so different that it is impossible to piece them together to form a clear picture of who was or was not involved. The tabloid journalism that latched on to this story only made the search for truth murkier. The 24-hour news cycle and its need to keep a story alive may actually make the truth harder to find. In a world where “fake news” is frequently charged and even outlandish ideas are given coverage in the name of “balance”, this story serves as a challenge for us to seek truth amid all the hoopla and distraction.
When I saw this film at AFI Fest, it played to a packed house. It wasn’t one of the films I was especially looking forward to but I found it enjoyable in the absurd humor and the idiocy of the characters. Though, when a few weeks later I saw a trailer in the theater, I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t want to see that.” So, perhaps if you’re put off by the trailer, you may want to consider that there is more here than the trailer suggests.
Photos courtesy of Neon.