In one of the mock interviews that open I, Tonya, Tonya Harding's former coach (Julianne Nicholson) tells the audience that people love or hate the disgraced figure skater the way they love or hate America: "Tonya was totally American." This is the movie's thesis, too. It's not a compliment but a challenge.
It was a story the media loved without taking it seriously: When Harding faced off in her 1994 Olympic battle with Nancy Kerrigan, she was already under investigation for alleged involvement in a plot to maim her rival with a collapsible baton. Just months after the events, the makers of the TV movie "Nancy & Tonya: The Inside Story" were already presenting the saga as a jokey meta-tale of the birth of the 24-hour news cycle.
So what makes the deconstructed biopic I, Tonya so original is not that director Craig Gillespie (Fright Night) and writer Steven Rogers take an ironic tack. It's the extent to which they take Harding seriously. Without excusing her off-ice behavior, they remind us that, before her name became synonymous with tabloid fodder, Harding was a formidable athlete who beat the odds in a sport eager to reject her. Therein lies her tragedy — or was it a farce?
After all, a story's tone depends on its teller. The film makes that clear by alternating between fake present-day interview segments (based on genuine interviews, we're told) and dramatic reenactments, both using the same actors. Harding (Margot Robbie) and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), rarely agree, so what we see often contradicts what we're told, and vice versa. Sometimes a reenactment even pauses for a character to face the audience and critique it, evoking the vertiginous era of "fake news."
Yet, from this chaos, a story does emerge. It's the story of a working-class girl who excelled at a sport that was historically the domain of "rich, prissy a-holes," in the never-tactful words of LaVona, Harding's larger-than-life mother. Allison Janney makes the character's rage, sarcasm and occasional insight indelible. Even after Tonya transfers her loyalties from her abusive mom to an abusive husband, LaVona haunts her like a seething fury, doling out love and hate in equal measures.
Gillespie gives the reenactments Martin Scorsese-esque cinematic flourishes: sweeping tracking shots, a vintage soundtrack. The dark humor broadens in the depiction of the plot against Kerrigan, which is as clownishly inept as anything in a Coen brothers film. But I, Tonya really only works because of the sure, merciless strokes in which it sketches its main characters.
Some have seen the film as an attempt to exonerate Harding, but the mock interviews do a lot more than present her point of view. With satirical acumen, Robbie captures the plaintive, untrustworthy quality of a kid insisting she's only flunking because the teachers hate her — the very quality that bleeds off Harding in real interview footage. This is no reliable narrator. Yet Harding wasn't alone in complaining about skating judges, and it's impossible not to sympathize with her when she recalls her 1991 U.S. Championships win and says simply, "I was loved."
In Tonya's narrative of herself, she's a scrappy, self-made survivor fiercely trying to beat the elites. That's often America's narrative of itself, too. I, Tonya depicts Harding as a talent, a hard worker, and someone who rejoices endearingly in her wins and blames others for her losses. To call her "totally American" is, again, not to pay much of a compliment to her or to us, but right now it rings true.