Today we will be taking a look at “I, Tonya,” which is fresh off its win in the Best Supporting Actress category for Allison Janney at the 90th Oscars.
In case you don’t know already, “I, Tonya” is a darkly comic look at the rise and fall of Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie). The film juxtaposes documentary style interviews with Tonya, her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and her abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) with chronological flashbacks to her childhood, Olympic career and infamous involvement in the attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan.
So, let me begin by saying that I was quite young when Tonya Harding was in her prime. Unfortunately, I don’t remember when all of this unraveled in history. I have heard all of the jokes and references to “the incident,” but I guess I never truly knew what had happened. But, let me just begin with a list of things this movie taught me: Tonya Harding was/is a bad ass. And, my god, the 90s were a glorious time.
This marks the beginning of my love letter to this film. There are very few things that I didn’t enjoy about this movie. The relationships portrayed in “I, Tonya” are raw and real. In film, it is sometimes difficult to make the audience feel the same thing that the characters are in that moment. As a viewer, I was able to experience the fear, disappointment, anger, and joy that Tonya was as the story of her life unfolded. I think the casting of Allison Janney and Margot Robbie really helped in keeping the characters seem like real people. They are both actors that are so natural on screen. They were both made for the roles in which they were cast.
The film boasts some of the best acting, editing and cinematography of 2017. The skating sequences, though there are only a few of them, probably could have earned the film an Oscar nomination for cinematography had there been more of them. That said, screenwriter Steven Rogers probably made a wise choice by focusing only occasionally on the actual skating events and spending more time on Tonya’s personal life. Due to the documentary style used by director Craig Gillespie (which I’ll have more to say about later on), several other people in Tonya’s life are fully developed characters too. One that the film highlights is Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walker Hauser), Tonya’s bodyguard and a key conspirator in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. The cast of “I, Tonya” is excellent all around, and while Robbie and Janney have been singled out for much deserved praise, Hauser deserves a lot of attention for delivering some of the film’s funniest moments once Janney abruptly becomes absent from the narrative for a long stretch.
I was impressed with the portrayal of poverty in this film. Too often, characters become caricatures depicting long held beliefs about poverty and “rednecks.” However, this film did a great job in making the characters real people while still depicting their economic struggle. The domestic abuse that was also portrayed in this film was well done. I was happy that they made the choice to avoid any victim blaming. The film also did a great job at portraying the cycle of abuse and realistically showing how difficult it is for women to flee their abuser regardless of their fame or fortune.
One thing I am curious about is how much of the skating Margot Robbie actually did. The amazing thing about this film is that you could not tell when it was her skating and when it was a stunt double/editing. I think Nathan is correct in his assertion that this film would have been nominated for cinematography by the Academy this year if there had been more skating sequences in it. The ones that were included were amazing to watch. The tracking shots were a little dizzying to watch if you have had more than one glass of wine, but you could feel the emotion that Tonya Harding felt in that moment. The other great thing about the editing was the juxtaposition of the good times of her life versus the bad times. There was never a sudden turn that felt like too much. The story of Tonya Harding’s life is very dramatic. Stories like hers don’t always translate well to film. The writers and filmmakers did a great job in making sure that the story had great rising and falling action.
This is definitely one of my three favorite films of 2017, along with “Dunkirk” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” It is also the one I have the most complaints about of the three. From the beginning, the film establishes that nothing that any of the main characters say in these interviews is the complete truth. Their dishonesty is mocked further through flashbacks that demonstrate the competing narratives occurring here, and sometimes undermine what the characters are saying as they say it. The film clearly takes a side though. From start to finish, it shows that for all of Tonya’s faults, of everyone involved in the attack on Kerrigan, she was the least culpable and was unfairly given the harshest punishment.
I have no problem with the filmmakers choosing to tell the story this way. Yet, since they clearly take a side, the use of the documentary style to the degree it is present here seems unnecessary and gimmicky. The scenes with present day Jeff being interviewed just become a repetitive series of denials. His interview clips don’t help round out the character the way Tonya’s or LaVona’s do.
Now that I have spilled my heart over my love for this film, I suppose I do need to mention the few things that I did not enjoy. I really enjoyed the documentary style of the film. It helped move the storyline along and helped weave the “real story” into the narrative of the film. The one thing that I did not enjoy was the constant breaking of the fourth wall outside of the documentary scenes. I found it to be distracting and I did not think that it added anything more to the story.
Juxtaposed with Jeff’s interview clips, the breaking of the fourth wall does undermine his denials of abusing Tonya. It’s another not very subtle way the filmmakers assign more credibility to her side of the story. She is the only one of the characters to break the fourth wall in the flashback sequences. Sometimes it is amusing, but other times it is jarring and distracting. I like that Gillespie chooses to use this technique, I just wish he had used it a little less often.
It also bothered me a bit that LaVona (Janney) just disappeared from the middle of the film. There wasn’t a whole lot of explanation as to what caused the rift between the two until Tonya tried to reconcile with her mother. They do point out that she disappeared from the film through the use of a documentary shot. But, I think a little more of narrative explanation was necessary. She is too good of a character to let her just slip out of the story the way that she did.
All in all, I loved this film. The few things that I did not enjoy, in the grand scheme of things, did not impact the overall quality of this film. This is definitely a film I could see us watching over and over again without getting bored. The casting of this film really made it what it was. Without Janney and Robbie, I have a feeling this film could have been a disaster. Overall, the editing and characters made this film what it was.
One thing I should mention is how this film is relevant to today. “The incident,” as it is called in the film, was an example of a rare, for the time, instance of tabloid news becoming a story that the major, respected news outlets focused on. Our preoccupation as a country with “Hard Copy” style news has increased dramatically since then, as have the major news outlets’ co-opting of tabloid-esque stories in order to keep the attention of audiences who now have a lot more viewing options.
There were definitely other examples of these stories in the 90s, from the O.J. Simpson murder trial (which the film references) to Monica Lewinsky. Viewers’ expectations that everything be entertaining have caused many news outlets to cover politics and government with more focus on personal scandal. CNN’s current obsession with Stormy Daniels is the biggest example I can think of right now. There are other issues going on in the Trump White House, the U.S. Capital and even in state capitals throughout the country that will affect people’s daily lives far more than whether or not the president slept with a porn star, but it makes for good entertainment instead of less soapy hard news stories.
It’s a problem aptly summed up by Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) in the film when he looks at the audience and says he was “a reporter for Hard Copy, a pretty crappy show the “legitimate” news outlets looked down on-and then became.” If “The Post” was 2017’’s plea for journalistic integrity, then “I, Tonya” is last year’s funny but at times too real look at what often masquerades as journalism.