Rarely does a film come with such essential side reading as the pulpy biopic romp “I, Tonya,” and The New York Times Magazine profile, published around the movie’s wide release, of former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. In the magazine piece we learn that nearly everything in “I, Tonya” is true — at least, in so far as the subject herself was concerned. (The author also describes the tone of the film as “wide-eyed Oregon gothic,” a line too fitting to pass up here.) Harding explains that, contra her depiction in the movie, she does not swear copiously; she took her disputes with judges out of public view; and that it leaves the impression that her family made, rather than purchased, the rabbit fur coat she wore as a child. The Times writes: “That’s it? I asked. That’s it, she confirmed. Those are her only objections. Which was confusing, because the movie doesn’t vindicate her by a long shot.”
No, what you get with the inestimable, Oscar-nominated Margot Robbie as Harding, and with Sebastian Stan (your Winter Soldier in the Marvel universe) as Jeff Gillooly, her abusive bungler of an ex-husband, and Allison Janney as Harding’s hard-bitten mother (in a role that already has won a Golden Globe), is a portrait of poverty, dysfunction and blame-shifting that no one escapes unscathed. The emotionally austere mother denigrates Harding’s every effort. Stan goes from high school flame to casual abuser to dark muse and, unwittingly, the architect of what everyone calls, in the faux interview cuts that frame the narrative, “the incident.” By enlisting his doofus buddy Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) to put a scare into Harding’s Disney princess-esque rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), Stan puts in motion an attack on Kerrigan that became, weeks before the 1994 winter Olympics, just about the biggest tabloid story on the planet at the time.
Screenwriter Steve Rogers (“Hope Floats”) based the movie on actual interviews with the principle characters, none of whom are what you’d call in freshman lit “reliable” narrators. Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”), evidently deciding that enough time has passed since tragedy, goes full-on dark comedy in the telling, and through the prismatic roster of narrators — the fourth wall is pretty permeable throughout — gets at something approximating the daft truth of Harding’s life in a spirit that a straightforward documentary would’ve bobbled.
The touchiest point there is, simply, class. “I, Tonya” has taken a ration of criticism for seeming to punch down at Harding and her low-income, blue-collar family, who in the film’s telling were always obvious interlopers among the families with the resources to fund figure skating lessons and transportation and outfits and so on from a young age. Janney’s pitbull portrayal of LaVona Golden, always in snippy battles with Harding’s coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), plays this up, as do the pinched interiors of the family homes and Robbie as the modern-day Harding, looking weatherbeaten and sporting huge bangs with a jean jacket, puffing a cigarette. You get the sense this is a group who probably heard the word “trash” thrown at them a lot in the day. And it’s easy to see how people would presume the film is picking on Harding yet again for the crime of coming up poor.
But tilt your head a few degrees and you’ll see a lot of sympathy for the beleaguered real-life characters — Harding most of all. She’ll tell you, in that kitchen sit-down, that she was at one time the best figure skater in the world — the first American woman ever to land a triple axel in competition. That she never fit the look of what the figure skating establishment (or the endorsement industrial complex) wanted from a champion was, in a sense, their loss. Our loss, really. If the snobs had appreciated Harding as the pure athlete and folk hero she was at the time, you wouldn’t have seen all the mess with the Kerrigan attack. People simply would’ve seen an American badass, bruises and tortured bangs and all, and we wouldn’t be wondering about whether Harding will ever be vindicated. In that, at least, “I, Tonya” gets her as close as she’ll probably ever get.