By Michael Gawlik (Ann Arbor, MI)

 

On first blush, I, Tonya appears to be a character study – and it is. With expert performances from Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, the film explores the at once tragic, moving, and darkly comical life of one of athletics’ most notorious figures. It shows Tonya Harding as something between a victim of circumstance and a brash, arrogant, young woman–a representation far more nuanced than the one that has existed in popular memory since the 1994 Olympics.

All of this character development serves a higher purpose: to offer commentary on the idea of truth as it is presented by popular media and accepted by those who consume said media. The film opens, with nods towards both documentary and mockumentary stylings, on a note informing audiences that it is a composite of exceptionally contradictory accounts given by the story’s players. Throughout, it toys with multiple and unreliable narrators, flashing between Harding’s accounts of domestic abuse and her husband, Jeff Gillooly’s, insistence on the mildness of his marital disputes. Never does the film hide the fact that this story, like all stories, is relative to the person telling it.

Through these multiple narratives, I, Tonya looks for an answer to the question with which viewers almost certainly approached the film: who is to blame for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan? As some narrators would tell it, blame should be levied on Harding’s mother, LaVona, for pushing her daughter to the competitive extremes that allow for the eventual events of the story to unfold. Others might blame Gillooly, for initiating the attack against Kerrigan by paying his dopey friend, Shawn Eckhardt, to send threatening letters to his (ex-) wife’s rival. Eckhardt himself certainly plays a role, for adding a simultaneously cruel and ridiculous twist to his plan that elevates the attack from psychological to physical. And, of course, the bozos that carry out the hit are far from inculpable.

As the film depicts it, Harding is the only character, who, amidst the thicket of contradictory accounts, remains essentially blameless for the attack on Kerrigan. Though she knew about the letters Gillooly intended to send, she was completely ignorant of the more sinister layers of “her” war against Kerrigan. And yet, as Harding reminds us at the end of the film, she is the one who takes on most of the blame from the public. While Gillooly eventually returns to normality, news vans departing from his home to look into the next scandal, Harding’s is the name that becomes, as she puts it, the punch line the public takes hold of. She becomes the villain that, as she herself recognizes, the American public needs to absolve its own guilt about staring with relish at scandal. Wrapped at the center of the story, with everything done for or around her, Harding is caught in the crossfire; there’s no way, the film tells audiences, that she could have escaped blame, regardless of how responsible or not she actually was.

That I, Tonya suggests Harding played a less blameworthy part in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan is not absolution or an unequivocal declaration of the figure skater’s innocence; instead, it is a counter narrative to the one that has long existed, an intellectual exercise in considering how the truth that the public accepts depends largely on the way a story is told. “This is the story of my life…and that’s the fucking truth,” Harding tells us at the film’s conclusion. Well, this, at least, is her truth; whether or not the public will accept it on as their truth is another matter entirely.

Rating: 5/5

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