I, Tonya Is the Biopic We Deserve Right Now

Margot Robbie's Tonya Harding Movie Plays Fast and Loose With the Truth

By Sam Eichner ·
Photo: Neon via Vice

I, Tonya, Australian director Craig Gillespie’s freewheeling biopic of iconoclastic figure skater Tonya Harding, begins with a disclaimer of sorts that the story we’re about to watch has come together “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory and totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” Harding’s former husband. It ends with Margot Robbie, as Harding, face down on the mat of a boxing ring, blood in her teeth—after her unlikely rise from a life of poverty and domestic abuse to Olympic figure skater; after the infamous “incident” that would result in her banishment from the sport, and second act as a boxer—speaking intently to the audience: “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life does whatever the fuck it wants.” As with the decade’s most prominent stories—the O.J. Simpson trial and Bill Clinton’s impeachment—Harding fell prey to a scandal-hungry 24/7 news cycle, the kind of outsized media narratives that vandalize truth, blurring reality with fiction. Or so the makers of I, Tonya want you to think.

Indeed, what the filmmakers want you to think, apparently, is as much a focus of the film as the story itself. The biopic, which deploys present-day docu-style interviews of its main players as a frame—with Harding, Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Harding’s mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) and others—frequently and unsubtly winks at its own unreliability. Every so often, the characters in the main text, so to speak, break the fourth wall with asides about the veracity of various details—such as whether or not Harding retaliated to Gillooly’s physical abuse by shooting at him with a shotgun, or whether Harding’s coach, Diane Rawlinson (played with haughty quietude by a scene-stealing Julianne Nicholson), really put her through this or that exercise. A self-serious, hagiographic biopic this is not; the aim here, one assumes, is for us to take everything Gillespie shows us with a grain of salt.

To an unsuspecting millennial viewer such as myself, the story of Tonya Harding has a stranger-than-fiction quality, anyway. Akin to the O.J. entertainments of 2016, I came to I, Tonya with only a vague sense of who she was and why she was famous. Sure, I knew she was a figure skater. But I didn’t know she was a cig-smoking fish-out-of-water with an oft-cruel mother, who would intentionally infuriate her before competitions. Yes, I knew she was an Olympian. But I had no idea that while she was literally the best in the world at something—the first women to land the triple axel in competition—she was still living in a shithole apartment with a husband who, despite his fervent denials, routinely beat the crap out of her. Yes, I’d heard of some sort of scandal. But do you mean to tell me, I, Tonya, that this idiot “boob” Shawn Eckhardt —Gillooly’s delusional friend and Harding’s “bodyguard”—could have been so stupid as to have Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan’s knees bashed in with a collapsible police baton? When Harding is banished from skating after the ’94 Olympics, and finds herself in a women’s boxing ring, I found myself in a state of giddy disbelief: you simply cannot write a more American story than a trashy figure skater who, excommunicated from the sport for her involvement in a conspiracy to maim her competitor, abandons the put-on grace and elegance of her former life and reinvents herself as a pugnacious prize-fighter.

And yet what’s even more fundamentally American about Harding’s story, as Gillespie tells it, is everyone's eagerness to cling to their own version of the truth. The film is ultimately sympathetic towards Harding, painting her, however unreliably, as a victim of abuse and a nefarious plan that was out of her control. (Police reports suggest Harding was abused by Gillooly—that part, at least, is irrefutably true, and, as such, some critics have taken issue with the film’s portrayal of it.) We’ll never know for sure whether or how much she (or Gillooley) knew about what the movie refers to as “the incident”—the plot to physically harm Nancy Kerrigan. But does it really matter? As Americans, writer Kurt Andersen points out in last year's timely book, Fantasyland, we believe in our inalienable right to—and I'm paraphrasing—take our wildest fictions as basic facts.

In this way, I, Tonya is not just a fascinating, funny, devastating, invigoratingly entertaining biopic of a larger-than-life public figure (featuring great performances from Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, both of whom will likely find themselves in the Oscars conversation). It’s both a testament to the forces that led to our post-truth moment, and a product of this moment itself.

Sam Eichner likes literature, reality television and his twin cats equally. He has consistently been told he needs a shave since he started growing facial hair.

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