Where The Post venerates American journalism at its most principled, I, Tonya has its roots in a more ignoble but no less American tradition. The faux testimonials that run through the film—based, so a title card tells us, “on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews”—have the grainy texture and static framing of Errol Morris’ early documentaries, but its true lodestar is the tabloid TV show Hard Copy, which in 1994 helped break the story of the attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. With Kerrigan already anointed as America’s Olympian sweetheart, the potentially career-ending blow to her leg from a mysterious assailant was news to begin with, but it became something juicier and more volatile as the trail of evidence began to lead toward Kerrigan’s chief American rival, Tonya Harding, and her husband Jeff Gillooly. Hard Copy and its trash-TV ilk positively wallowed in the salacious details, and their ostensibly respectable competitors found it hard not to follow suit. As Bobby Cannavale’s Hard Copy reporter says in I, Tonya, it was “a pretty crappy show that legitimate news outlets looked down on, and then became.”
Written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya gives us the Hard Copy version of the story. Apart from Tonya, played by Margot Robbie with bulldog determination, most of its major characters, including Sebastian Stan’s Gillooly and Allison Janney as Harding’s brutal, abusive mother, LaVona Golden, exist on a spectrum between absurdity and grotesquerie. The tone is tongue-in-cheek, with teeth gritted so hard you can taste just a hint of blood. Tonya admits near the beginning of the movie that she knows she’s remembered as a punchline, when she’s even remembered at all, and even when you’re watching Gillooly slam her head into a wall or Golden accidentally lodge a kitchen knife in her forearm, Gillespie keeps you at a level of remove. Sometimes he’ll douse the moment in a thick layer of irony: A cover of the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” plays as Gillooly pulls a gun on a fleeing Tonya and lets off a warning shot, which ricochets off a nearby car and grazes her forehead. Sometimes he’ll show us an incident and then question its veracity, as when a rampaging Tonya pauses to pump her shotgun and remarks into the lens, “I never did this.”
I, Tonya’s approach could easily come off as a sick joke, and there are certainly those who’ve taken it that way. But the movie never sneers at Tonya, and it’s precise about the common social currents, and the extraordinary ability, that produced her. What separated Kerrigan and Harding wasn’t that one was rich and one was poor, but that one was able to embody the media’s, and the figure-skating establishment’s, ideal of a willowy, glitter-doused princess of the ice; and the other, with her muscular legs and homemade costumes—including a fur coat made out of rabbits that the film suggests she hunted herself—fell short of that ideal, even as she hit jumps that none of her competitors could hit. The problem wasn’t her skating: It was her image.
The movie starts to lose its grip as it progresses toward what its characters refer to as “the incident,” the cockamamie scheme hatched by Gillooly’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) to send two low-rent goons to Kerrigan’s training facility and kneecap her. Eckhardt is a figure the most bigfoot of satirists would dismiss as over-the-top, insisting that he’s an international expert on counterterrorism when he actually lives in his parents’ basement. The clumsy caper itself plays like budget Coen brothers: Fargo the TV show, not Fargo the movie. But even as they bumble around like idiots, we know that tragedy is looming (unless, that is, you believe Harding is a criminal who got what she deserved—which I, Tonya does not). It’s easy to laugh, but that laughter comes at a cost.
Janney, shooting death glances at the other parents as she slugs back whiskey during Tonya’s skating practice, is a marvelous monster—“You think Sonja Henie’s mother loved her?”—but the movie balances on Robbie’s knife-edge performance. She’s a real person and an imagined one, a caricature and a portrait, and on the ice, she’s all of them at once. The movie puts too much faith in digital technology to weld Robbie’s face to a trained skater’s body, but Robbie puts so much of herself into the moments before and after Tonya takes off that what comes between them seems less important. Her Tonya is a victim, but she’s a defiant one, chain-smoking in her kitchen rather than licking her wounds and seizing this chance, perhaps the last one, to finally get her story straight.