Is it even possible that the major networks and newspapers reporting on a national news story could be considered superficial, and Heaven forbid, perhaps a tad biased? Take for instance the case of the world’s most notorious figure skater. Tonya Harding had the misfortune of living through a scandal that broke just as the TV media converted to a 24-hour news cycle, but before the rise of alternate internet outlets gave controversial figures a means of by-passing media gatekeepers. The media decided we were going to hate her, so we did. At least, that is how Harding sees it and it is hard to argue with her after watching Craig Gillespie’s gutsy mock-doc-bio-pic, “I, Tonya,” which opens Dec. 8 in New York.
Nancy Kerrigan got whacked on the knee. That much is definitely true. She was the victim and she deserved the outpouring of sympathy she received, but Gillespie does not have much time for her. Harding is the one who interests him. We should probably hold off on the canonization of Harding, but it is impossible not to sympathize with her after listening to her mean-as-a-snake mother LaVona Golden spout bile for five seconds.
Structured as a documentary, Gillespie has his cast recreate actual interviews he conducted with the living principle characters, while dramatizing her Harding’s rags-to-prison jumpsuit story. Her talent on the ice was immediate, right from an early age, but she came from mean circumstances, so her clothes were always a little tacky and her manners were coarse. She was “white trash,” so the sports media and figure skating establishment stacked the deck against her. But she had a trump card: the triple axel, which Harding could land on a good day, but almost no other skater had the fortitude to even attempt.
So, if she had all that talent, why the attack on Kerrigan? It’s complicated, especially when it comes to assigning culpability. Gillespie does not let Harding off the hook, but it is safe to say her biggest mistake was surrounding herself with idiots, like her ex-husband and his bumbling best friend, Shawn Eckhardt. She helped plan something, but it seems she thought it would be more akin to the kind of psychological warfare she herself had faced. Or so we conclude from what Gillespie presents.
Harding may have been guilty of something, but we see her pay for it one hundred times over. It is clear nobody wanted to listen to her side of the story, especially not the media. In fact, they are the real villains, as a Mephistophelean “Hard Copy” producer played by Bobby Cannavale gleefully admits. In what might be the movie line of the year, he chortles: “the rest of the media used to look down on us—and then they became us.”
It just becomes blindingly obvious Harding could never catch a break. Yet, she could also be her own worst enemy. Indeed, “I, Tonya” is so wryly funny, because observations of incisive clarity alternate fast-and-furious with dumbfounding moments of un-self-aware denial. Human nature is a messy phenomenon, to which Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers hold up a withering mirror.
Still, it is impossible to overstate the credit due to Margot Robbie and Allison Janney for doing the seemingly impossible: making us feel for Harding. This is a Robbie her fans have never seen before. Somehow, she manages to “overcome” her supermodel bone structure and ground herself in Harding’s hardscrabble, resentment-fueled reality.
However, even she pales next to Janney’s harrowing portrayal of Mother LaVona. Imagine Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest,” but with restraint and an acid-tipped tongue that would make Ambrose Bierce wince and you start to get the idea. Ordinarily, she would be a sure-fire can’t-miss Oscar lock, but this year all bets are off.
Frankly, “I, Tonya” inspires a singularly unique emotional response. Viewers will laugh heartily at the decidedly dark humor, but they will also experience pangs of guilt for uncritically accepting the media’s demonization of Harding. She is a sinner, not a saint, but she has more in common with average, hard-working Americans than the self-appointed media paragons of virtue, such as Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose, David Corn, and Matt Lauer.
If you remember when the scandal broke, the film takes you right back there, but it lifts the curtain to reveal the untidy pre-determined-narrative-challenging details we missed at the time.
Very highly recommended, “I, Tonya” opens in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the AMC Loews Lincoln Square uptown.
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit jbspins.blogspot