SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss aspects of this film's plot and characters. As always, I encourage you to watch the film before reading this review.
What is truth?
When I was in college, I was a part of an honors group. As part of a project, we went to Notre Dame Stadium on a football game day to ask that very question to people who were tailgating. As you might imagine, we got a wide range of answers.
What I remember from that experience is that most people offered a variant on the same conclusion - everyone decides truth for themselves. Often, we call this relativism. It is that thinking that rests in the background of I, Tonya.
Most everyone who goes to see this film will have some vague idea of who Tonya Harding is. They've heard stories, or they remember seeing her in the news. A vast majority of people who see this film will have one thing in mind - what the film itself refers to as "The Incident." This film tells the story of how Harding came from an extremely humble background - including frequent abuse at the hands of her mother - to become one of the top figure skaters in the world. She even became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition. Then, it all fell apart amid one of the more famous scandals in recent memory.
What this film does so well - by way of director Craig Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers - is highlight our shaky cultural relationship with truth by doing two things. First, the script plays around with the idea of an unreliable narrator - that we can't trust the person who is telling us the story. At various points in the film, a character will look directly at the camera and tell us why they should be believed over the other characters.
The second thing the film does is to tie the Tonya Harding narrative to our country's wider cultural climate. One line of dialogue early in the film even goes as far as to say that Tonya is America. Then near the end of the film, we see a shot of O.J. Simpson on the TV as Tonya's scandal is leaving the spotlight. Maybe Tonya says it best when she says that our culture wants someone to love and someone to hate at the same time.
As Tonya Harding, Margot Robbie gives a monumental performance. And yet, she may not even give the best performance in this cast. Allison Janney has long been a favorite of mine ever since her days on The West Wing. Here, she brings Tonya Harding's abusive mother to life in a way that is frightening at times. But what is even more jarring is that her performance will elicit laughs from you just seconds after making you gasp in horror.
As I said, most people will know about much of the film's plot from hearing about it in the news. I certainly learned a great deal, but that is more due to the fact that I was still in diapers when the real life story ocurred.
Can you really believe Tonya? Maybe not, but I'd rather believe her than her mother or her ex-husband (Sebastian Stan) and his team of thugs. None of them are very credible, yet these are the people telling the story. As I said before, the film does a masterful job at bringing that to life both thematically and visually.
This film made me laugh, it made me gasp and it made me think. It made me think about our reality TV culture and how there are real life stories behind the tabloid headlines. It made me think about the incredible trauma of abuse and how blessed I am that I've never experienced it. And it made me think about the nature of truth. You may not expect all of that in a film about Tonya Harding, but it is a testament to the incredible work of the talented artists on this film that the result is so insightful.
In fact, throw out all your expectations about the life of Tonya Harding. That's not to say that you should take the movie's depiction of her life as gospel, because - well - she could be lying. But the truth is in there somewhere. And I do think this film is asking us, if not to fully empathize with Tonya, then to at least consider what it would be like to be in her shoes. What would it be like to come from a poor upbringing, work tirelessly to become a premier skater then have a judge give you a lower score simply because you don't have the right image? I think that would be pretty hard on any of us. And that doesn't even account for the repeated abuses at the hands of people who were supposed to love her.
Does that excuse what she does later in life? No. But it provides context. Situations are often far more complex than we think at first. The story of Tonya Harding is certainly that way. The reality is that we will probably never know the full truth of what happened. Tonya's story has been inexorably tied to "The Incident."
Maybe the moral of the story is that we should stop directing our focus to such tabloid fare and instead focus on the hard truths of society that we'd rather avoid.
Note on content: This film showcases repeated instances of physical abuse and domestic violence, including a scene where one character throws a knife at another character. These scenes are violent, and they will not be appropriate for young viewers. And, of course, there is a scene where a skater is hit in the knee with a steel baton. On top of that, there is profanity throughout, and there are some scenes of sexual content, though there is no nudity. There are also scenes in a strip club where dancers can be seen in the background wearing tassles on their breasts.