So, it’s not really about Tonya Harding. I mean, it’s about her, but it’s not like this movie’s titled I, Tonya Harding. No, I, Tonya is, as vapid as it sounds, about America. It’s a compact social issue drama disguised as a sports film that picks at some low hanging fruit about news media culture and cyclical abuse of the maternal and domestic variety. But given a national standard that’s seen its low hanging fruit descend into the icy pits of the ninth circle, it’s almost forgivable, hell, courageous, for a film to literally indict and implicate its audience. I, Tonya leaves no room for subtly. Rather, it espouses its argument and regards its audience as culpable violators to the liberal treatise they uphold. It’s manipulative and frequently frustrating but almost obscenely sincere in its straightforwardness. There’s even a scene where its lead character asks another if they like her. There’s no gamesmanship here; I, Tonya gets straight to it.
There’s a pronounced unsettling quality to I, Tonya that, initially, suggests its cruelty as a series of comic interludes. First it comes from LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), the abusive, chain-smoking matriarch figure that looms over her daughter Tonya (briefly played by Mckenna Grace, then Margot Robbie). Golden’s verbal and physical assaults would seem to be intended for laughs but the cumulative affect of her ridicule generates so much discomfort that one begins to associate her presence with necrotic rot of the human spirit. It’s Robbie that imbues the narrative with a measure of humanity, the bruised canvas of a human being that moves from one abusive relationship with her mother to another with her boyfriend Jeff (Sebastian Stan). Every day is a metaphorical and literal lesion, where the overt suggestion is that Tonya requires this abuse as some kind of metric for validation.
That’s a pretty startling revelation of sorts, though one almost gathers that director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers stumbles upon this unsavory, clinical truth. Instead, there’s an overt preoccupation, some will suggest obligation, to recounting the narrative that propelled Harding into the national spotlight. The film gradually builds to the Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) incident, affording the various goons involved with an unnecessary spotlight. The scene itself more or less plays like a banal riff of a Coen Bros. film, which, based on the film’s tone, is clearly what the film strives for. But these moments where Gillespie and Rogers attempt to encapsulate the feel of a Coens film are when I, Tonya suffers the most, and where its mockery and indulgences feel the most telegraphed and void of meaning.
But it’s perhaps worth noting that Kerrigan rarely gets any screentime whatsoever. Her presence almost becomes hagiography, where the primary characters speak of her in equal parts reverence and abhorrence. And it’s here where the construction of a “feminine image” comes to the forefront. Gillespie and Rogers employ an interview device that frames much of the film’s action, whereupon fictionalized interviews involving everyone from the main cast to orbiting figures recount the real events. An intriguing dichotomy emerges from this device, where competing (and mutually exclusive) ideologies regarding figure skating’s value of artistry and athleticism are brought to light. These concepts are more or less informed by a national (global?) standard of femininity, where female figure skaters must ascribe to preconceived notions of femininity that values vulnerability and quote unquote grace. Athleticism, the sort of stubborn and dominant physicality that embodied Tonya Harding’s work, wasn’t the sort of thing that earned her high marks by judges. Rather, the formal proficiency of her work was secondary to Kerrigan’s perceived femininity (read: her sex appeal). When the film captures a confrontation between Harding and a judge, the confirmation of bias doesn’t come across as any sort of major revelation, but instead a matter-of-fact reality.
While at times haphazardly constructed, there’s no denying that I, Tonya speaks to a lot of unsavory realities about the way a female image is composed in the national spotlight, along with the way a public absorbs these media spectacles privately and communally. The result is something not all too different from the essay qualities of Adam McKay’s The Big Short, where Gillespie and Rogers construct a vivid image of the impossible situation women find themselves in. Their culturally ascribed political, sexual, and professional responsibilities are so frequently in conflict with one another that if they fail to adhere to their appointed role, they’re deemed undesirable. And with the image of O.J. Simpson on a television in Harding’s room later in the film, the overarching sense is that the window of spotlight she’s been granted is closing as she’s cast aside as another disposable, ornamental prop in a perpetually esurient media machine. Unlike something as vapid as Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ Battle of the Sexes, I, Tonya isn’t intended for uplift or to leave you thinking that the hard-fought battle for equality has been won; instead we have a woman, alone, bruised, and bloodied, still fighting.