On Thin Ice
There have been a number of films lately — and are likely to be more, as I continue to get older and things I think of as happening in the not-too-distant past become ancient history — in which things are fictionally re-created that I remember as vivid memories. Nothing really prepares you for this sensation, and the cellular nature of memory, the way that it’s not actually recalled but rebuild and reconstructed every time, puts me in ill temper that what I think of as history is becoming an agglomeration of recreations. So it was with I, Tonya, a clever and mostly enjoyable retelling of the rise and fall of figure skater Tonya Harding.
Harding’s story — a young and promising figure skater from a troubled family, rejected by her sport’s stuffy establishment, who scuttled her own career through a combination of bad choices and worse companions — is one that I thought hugely familiar to me. I lived through it, after all, during one of the most eventful years of the 1990s, when it seemed like society was shaking itself to pieces. (This has since become a rather familiar sensation.) As I saw her, late in the film after the assault on Nancy Kerrigan, dressed in a purple-and-teal workout jumper, it felt like something that was burned into my memory; and yet, the more the movie rolled on, the more I realized that what I’d forgotten was far more meaningful than what I remembered.
I, Tonya is, for the most part, a pretty well-done film. It’s conceptually daring, a pseduo-documentary that takes some risky metafictional chances; and it’s tonally tricky but manages to pull of a sometimes delightful black-comic tone. This is a story that could have veered easily into melodrama on the one hand or pathos on the other, but it avoids both with an easy swerve that manages to generate a certain degree of empathy for one of the decade’s most notorious figures while keeping the humor as dark as a skating rink after it’s closed for the night. There are a few moments where the breaking of the fourth wall gets a bit too cute or a tad too aggressive, but the script sets its framework early on and largely sticks with it, keeping it from being too jarring when it happens. For a movie that doesn’t play by a lot of the standard rules of biopics, it remains quite consistent throughout, and that works in its favor at the most intense moments.
Of course, it has working in its favor the fact that l’affaire Harding was inherently absurd, one of the most surreal and ridiculous events in a period of history that was famous for being ridiculous. I, Tonya doesn’t really have to exaggerate its events for comic effects, because the story itself is so absurd. It probably oversells the relentless evil of Harding’s mother, LaVona Golden, superbly played by Allison Janney (but then again, looking at footage of the woman, maybe it doesn’t), but everything else is self-evidently crazy and superbly funny: Harding’s own resentment and rage, and her inability to shake off the influence of her worthless drag of a husband, Jeff Gillooly (well conveyed by Sebastian Stan); the utter mania of the media when the story broke; the idiotic nature of the plan from its very conception and the mystery — as well as the meaninglessness — of who knew what and when; and, at its funniest and its darkest, the way so many lives and careers were smashed against the overblown and obvious lies of Gillooly’s friend and Harding’s ‘bodyguard’, the self-aggrandizing Shawn Eckhardt. It’s more than enough material to sustain the story.
I, Tonya employs a technique to drive this home that’s similar to one used in The Disaster Artist, and that I think we’re going to see a lot more of as movies start to be made of events that took place in the digital era: its end credits show us some of the events we just saw dramatized in the original archival footage. This plays into our fickle memories: we might have looked at Paul Walter Hauser as Eckhardt and thought him too cartoonish to be believed, but there he is, spinning obvious lies about himself on the network news. We might have thought Harding’s performance at the 1994 Olympics to be overdramatized for effect, but there’s the woman herself, tearfully pointing at her broken bootlace. It’s both satisfying and bewildering, and while it may lead to some uncomfortable questions about why we’re watching a movie and not a documentary, it reinforces the madness of the whole situation. (It also helps to offset the casting of Robbie. While she does a terrific job in the role — especially as the older Harding — she’s physically way off; she seems much too old even though she’s only a few years older; she’s too tall, her face is too hard and angular, her voice is too harsh and short, and she over-exaggerates some of Harding’s mannerisms to a distracting degree. Her acting is top-notch, but the visual differences are hard to overcome at times, particularly when we get to see the actual Harding in the news footage.)
Fictionalizing a story in this way cuts both ways. For all the things I remembered about the real Tonya Harding that showed up in the film, there were omissions that were just as telling; in particular, the filmmakers left out the detail that Harding was criticized at that same Olympics for wearing white cake deodorant instead of clear roll, a huge class signifier in a story crammed with them. This was party of the Harding story: she was always despised by the skating establishment because she was poor, she came from the white working class, she didn’t respect their authority, and she didn’t fit their image of a perfect princess in a sport for ladies. Even favorable commenters emphasized qualities that were extremely loaded and barely coded: they emphasized her “strength”, her “physicality”, her “grit”, and always came just short of calling her what they really meant: she was white trash. They hated her and she hated them right back.
It’s all part of the essential tragedy that makes I, Tonya such a successful comedy. Harding never stood a chance; she was raised with deprivation and abuse, forced into something she didn’t really want to do, and forever punished for not doing it the way everybody wanted her to. But the one thing a doomed figure can do to push back against fate is to take a fucked-up life and fuck it up even harder. That’s the story of Tonya Harding, and while the movie is as imperfect as her Olympic routine in 1992, at it best moments, it promises us that sweet triple axel.