I, Tonya is Not About Sympathy

By in biopic, I Tonya, movies, Nancy Kerrigan, real life, Tonya Harding, true story
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1- Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) after landing the triple axel in I, TONYA, courtesy of NEON and 30WEST

The Nancy Kerrigan attack and Tanya Harding involvement scandal of the 90’s was probably as big as the O.J. Simpson trial, if not bigger. It’s a funny thing because Simpson’s trial was of great interest because it was a double murder tied to America’s favorite football player compared to the criminal leg-whacking situation of the Olympic figure skater in 1994 that doesn’t seem so horrific. Either way, everyone was obsessed with the details of the Kerrigan attack and how it all came about. The media followed the story for ages. And after the full investigation and court sentencing, the obsession continued. Tonya Harding became the Darth Vader of figure skating. Most think that O.J. Simpson committed the murders he was accused of (although he was acquitted), and he still doesn’t receive the revulsion that Harding continues to experience 24 years later for being a part of this scandal.

I, Tonya is a biopic on the 1994 attack on Kerrigan prior to the US championships, but it’s based on Harding (Margot Robbie) and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly’s (Sebastian Stan) testimonies. Their stories changed so much that it is no surprise that the movie would be a walking contradiction. At one point, while Harding is cocking a gun at her husband she looks at the camera and says, “I never did this.”

Critics, and the likes bashed the movie for having their facts wrong. They also criticized the film for not showing Tonya as a villainous character like Voldemort. But director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers weren’t going for a shame fest. They also weren’t going for what most people think is the truth, because we don’t really know what happened, do we? Even if they had chosen the most obvious of observations, that Harding was part of an elaborate plan to injure Kerrigan to stop her from competing, it still would not have been a fact. It would be a story made up based on what they thought happened. Instead, they went with what was said and allowed the audience to make their own conclusions.

The beginning of the film is a rundown of Tonya’s childhood. Her mother was abusive and they were poor. Once again, this is based on what Harding has said. Harding didn’t fit the prissy standards of figure skating princesses that skated to classical music and were more like graceful unicorns on ice. Tonya had homemade attire sewn by hand that the judges warned could cost her points and she had more power in her performance than grace. She also swore like a sailor, skated to ZZ Top, and I imagined her wearing a leather jacket and leaning against school lockers like a rebel from a 50’s movie. Harding claims she doesn’t curse like that. These details, real and imagined, come together to paint Harding as an outcast.

This is where viewers failed to distinguish the importance of Harding’s backstory in the film. This info isn’t a claim for sympathy or to blame the socioeconomic status issues in figure skating for what Harding did wrong. It’s to show Harding’s mindset.

Lavona Golden (Allison-Janney) and her pet bird in I, Tonya

A fact checklist on Vulture magazine confirms that scenes from I, Tonya were verifiable as Antje Spethmann claimed to have witnessed Harding’s mom hitting Harding with a brush and witnesses confirmed that she had peed on the ice because her mother refused to let her waste time by using the bathroom. Allison Janney does a great job of portraying the sarcastic and devoid-of-emotional-connection mother. Lavona Golden, Harding’s real mother, denies all abuse claims. Gillooly denies his abuse too, even though Harding got a restraining order against him.

Therefore, there are still questions about whether there was continuous abuse. And yet, verifying the validity of these claims is not necessary. Harding feels that she was abused and that it continued with an abusive marriage. If what she has been saying is true, then the abuse clearly has affected her. But if she has been lying, then she’s someone who has gone beyond fabricating events to save her from being accused of assault. She’s someone with a string of psychological problems. You would still have to ask yourself how together Harding is in her head to be so committed to being this way round-the-clock.

Harding has been accused of living in a perpetual state of victimhood due to the inaccuracy of some of her claims and her tendency to blame others. As I’ve mentioned before, the film doesn’t portray these situations as a cop out, but a better understanding as to why Tonya would lie and exaggerate. It’s about her influences and the way that she thinks and less about her motives.

In MTV confessional style, the one-on-one commentary with the characters also shows the inaccuracy in everyone else’s accounts from Gillooly, to Golden, to Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hause). Golden’s bluntness reflects how oblivious the woman is to her own coolness. During Harding’s first dates with Gillooly, Golden calmly asked if they’ve fucked yet. At another point, she throws a knife at Harding (which she denies).

The ongoing shit show goes beyond explaining Harding’s motivations to be the only competitor for the US Olympics. It explains WHY Harding would involve herself in the Nancy Kerrigan attack, to begin with (which she still claims to have no part of). Not everyone would logically figure that taking out their competition literally would be the best way to a successful skating career. This is not the norm and that’s what I, Tonya gets right.

I, Tonya also uses the fourth wall to bring out what the characters are thinking during certain events in the film. It has a comedic effect which is a little unsettling as they happened during most of the domestic abuse scenes, but it isn’t to make light of such a serious subject, it gives insight on what these people were THINKING during these events. It also functioned as a clever way of displaying accounts that were unverifiable. They would have Harding act out what her ex-husband said she did and then she would speak to the audience and explain why it never happened.

Making a movie based on Tonya Harding was a gamble for the creators from the beginning. Unless they were going to show Harding as the main conspirator at the center of a complex plan, twisting a mustache and maniacally laughing, they were not going to get much credit. And there is a reason for that. Harding still claims she had no involvement in the Kerrigan attack. I think everyone is sure she knew they just can’t make out how much she knew. Others are convinced that she was the mastermind. If you could even call the attack organized because it played out more like bloopers. As long as Harding continues to claim innocence in her involvement, the world will continue to want everything based on her to be nothing but a punishment.

The ethic gripe with the movie is that it solely focuses on Tonya Harding, a woman that had some part, however small, in a crime to hurt her associate just to secure her place in the Olympics. This is true. No one wants a villain to be glorified. But there isn’t going to be a story about Nancy Kerrigan anytime soon. The world would rather hear about the train wreck that is Harding. She had beginnings that were gossip-worthy and the finger pointing is just too juicy to ignore. That’s why the story gained so much attention, to begin with. Not even the guy who actually hit Kerrigan in the leg gets this much attention. Just like the victim, he’s been forgotten.Whether she’s a master manipulator, a liar, or a victim of her surroundings, Harding is still the star of the show.

 

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