It’s hard to feel bad for I, Tonya, the film from Craig Gillespie about 90s figure skater Tonya Harding; the movie did well at the box office, was praised by critics (enjoying a 90% rating at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes), and has scored three Oscar nominations—no small feat.
When I saw the film for the first time, I was deeply impressed by its complexity, its brutality, and sure, it’s grim, dark humor. It touched me in a way I hadn’t anticipated, and which no other film released in 2017 managed. I’ve now seen it a total of three times, and frankly, I think it gets better with each viewing.
Which isn't to say it's a perfect film: the way it chooses to age (or not) it's characters can make it difficult to place them in their lives (when, late in the film, Harding clocks her age at 23, I was kind of surprised). And the rendering of Shawn Eckhardt by Paul Walter Hauser—Harding's "bodyguard" who receives most of the blame for the "incident" with Nancy Kerrigan—while funny, also comes off as a crude working class lampoon, right down to the aggressively depressing strip club where he and Gillooly meet.
Still, I liked the movie a lot, and when the Academy announced its nominees last month, I was kind of Mugatu’d upon seeing that I, Tonya was left out. Others have spent time bemoaning the snub of Sean Baker’s excellent movie The Florida Project, and rightly so, though that might have been more of a problem of exposure than of an active snub.
But so many people I’ve talked to (and I’m sorry friends, because I know I won’t shut up about it) have been more or less nonplussed by I, Tonya’s absence from the Best Picture list. People liked the movie, but nobody seems to see it as the Important Film™ that I think it really is.
Why I, Tonya should be taken seriously
The film investigates a lot of different ideas in deep and clever ways (blame, punishment, ability, image, class), but the one I kept returning to over and over again was the fascinating way the film explores the idea of narrative control.
The frame of the film—announced loudly by a title card that declares that the movie is “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly”—immediately problematizes the concept of narrative authority by casting doubt on any of the facts presented. The writer and director might as well have hung a sign on the front of the movie that says “We don’t have a fucking clue what actually happened.”
(If you’ll indulge me a moment of super brief literary analysis of the sentence: “based on” kicks off the game, channeling a construction that the cynical moviegoing audience has come to assume means “not true.” “Irony free” and “wildly contradictory” are sneaky elements to throw in here—”irony free” refers to the interviews, not the film, which is filled with irony; “wildly contradictory” makes it sound like the interviews themselves were wild, when in fact, it was just the contradictions [most of the interviews, which are sprinkled throughout the film, seem quite tame]; more importantly it helps us forget that the interviews were given in earnest. “Totally true” might as well be saying “false,” or at the very least “problematic.”)
But even this disclaimer, which attempts to instill a note of authority by telling us it’s dramatizing events as told by the people who experienced them, betrays itself immediately: though we see present-day Tonya Harding for a brief moment, she’s actually the last of the interviewees to speak.
This theme of who controls the narrative weaves its way throughout the film in two important ways: the most obvious is the meta-construction of the film itself, the illusion the filmmakers have created to make it seem like we’re seeing a dramatization of a simple, straightforward story, by cutting back and forth between the interviews, and then by breaking the fourth wall, having the characters in the dramatization speak directly to the camera, to the audience. Several of these moments happen during particularly brutal scenes—especially when Tonya is on the receiving end of domestic abuse from her husband.
(These scenes were also controversial in many of the negative reviews of the film, especially as many of them were accompanied by a rollicking soundtrack; it's possible it could have been a tone-deafness of the film, but I think there's an argument to be made that the dissonance between the subject matter and the music and the breaking of the fourth wall tricks us into watch something we might otherwise flinch away from.)
The idea that this is an authoritative account of what happened is as faulty as trying to sort out which bits of The Usual Suspects “actually happened” vs. which were a creation of Kaiser Soze; and yet, rather than casting doubt on these scenes, this method of showing us something and having different characters calling them bullshit, to my mind, makes them weightier. Sometimes, I, Tonya will call out this problem in the middle of the scene—perhaps my favorite moment is one which depicts Tonya firing a shotgun at her abusive husband, and then looking into the camera as she says “This is bullshit. I never did this.” (But of course, we've just seen it happen.) The moment almost invokes the famous Groucho Marx line, “Who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
What makes all this flashy storytelling so well suited to this story in particular is that one of the major struggles of the character of Tonya Harding in the film is trying to control her own narrative. She wants to be a successful skater, and the thing that’s holding her back is her life story. When she’s told she doesn’t “fit in” with the look the skating judges want, the film implies (fictitiously, perhaps) that her dad makes her a rabbit fur coat. Later in the film, she attempts to wrangle her story by going back to her abusive husband (which ends up kicking off the events that lead to “the incident,” which is when things really spiral out of her control).
“The incident” itself taps into this theme as well: Gillooly says in one of the interview cutaways flat out: “Everyone remembers the incident differently and that’s a fact.” He and Tonya have fevered conversations in the days following about “getting their stories straight,” which they’re never able to do. Clarity is always just out of grasp of these characters.
(Another sidebar here: an important part of this question of narrative authority is that one of the causes of the story spinning wildly out of control at the time was the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, which the movie comments on by featuring interviews with Hard Copy reporter Martin Maddox. The role of the media in the film is addressed subtly, but I think nimbly—Gillooly claims that “The press got everything wrong,” and we see how the insatiable hunger of the media fueled the coverage. When the Olympic Committee threatened to take Harding off the team, she sued them, and says to the camera, “Do you think CBS, who was showing the games, was gonna let this ginormous ratings fucker not happen?” I’m not trying to assert that the media made something out of nothing, nor that this exculpates the real-life Harding, but not acknowledging the extent to which the media made hay out of “the incident” would have been negligent. The media as a whole takes a beating in this film, not just because it doesn’t get the story right, but because it glories in not really caring that it gets it wrong.
(All of which is to say that, in 2017, when we paid dearly for the insatiability of a media machine with the Presidency of Donald Trump, a film like The Post, a sleepy, self-congratulatory [nearly masturbatory] flick gets the BP nom, but a film that portrays the media like a school of piranhas does not, says something about how hard we want to look at ourselves.)
I could go on (clearly), and would like to briefly note the way the film treats the concept of who is and isn't a "monster," but that can be your assignment for your next viewing.
Why I, Tonya isn’t taken seriously
I’ve meditated on this a lot since I saw the film, and more since it missed the mark for a Best Picture nomination. And it’s not just the BP snub: looking at Metacritic’s list of movies that pop up the most in critics’ top films of 2017 lists, I, Tonya comes in 21st, behind 8 of the Best Picture nominees (Winston Churchill biopic The Darkest Hour somehow fails to make the top 25), but also Baby Driver, the mixed-reviewed mother!, and R-rated Wolverine-pic Logan.
Maybe the most straightforward (and boring) answer is that the Academy (and critics more generally) still have a hard time with comedies. The other comedic critical darling of 2017, The Big Sick, also netted only one Oscar nomination, for best original screenplay.
But to call I, Tonya a comedy—which would be understandable, given how the film was marketed—would be an error, at least, without the modifier “dark.” There are funny moments in it, absolutely, but the tragedy at the center of it makes the film weighty. Indeed, it seems this dissonance is part of what earned some of its negative critical ire. Manohla Dargis writes in her review in The New York Times that “it becomes increasingly baffling why the filmmakers decided to put a comic spin on this pathetic, dispiriting story.”
(This makes me think that Dargis might have missed the final moments of the film, where Tonya says “America, you know. They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate. And they want it easy. But what’s easy? The haters always say, ‘Tonya, just tell the truth.’ But there’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit.” We’re treated to an intercut of Tonya lady-boxing after being banned from skating to earn money—literally fighting, getting bloodied—and her flashing back to her first triple axel, her emotional high point in the film. The arc of the story might be tragic, but to say it’s in no way funny seems heartless.)
Another strange element at play here is how the film exists in relation to the real events it claims to portray (or not, as the case may be). At the time, most people divided themselves into those who believed Tonya and those who condemned her, and the fact that the film takes neither side—that is, it doesn’t take a side about her innocence or guilt vis-a-vis “the [fucking] incident”—leaves some people perturbed. A column printed in the Oregonian from former sports columnist J.E. Vader entitled “I, Nauseated,” begins “It was painful to hand over the money for a ticket, knowing that some of it would go to an unrepentant felon.” He views the film as a complete and utter vindication of Harding, and therefore, an affront.
In fact, the lack of definitive blame in the film is not a mistake or an oversight—it’s one of its central ideas. Vader cites as gospel truth Gillooly’s testimony to the FBI that Harding was involved, but misses the fact that the whole point of the film is that there’s no way to know with any certainty if that’s true.
One scene that a few of my friends cited as the place where they found the film overreached comes late in the film, during the height of the post-incident press madness. Remembering it, present-day Harding observes, “I thought being famous would be fun. I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was a punchline. It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.”
These friends had taken the you to be the audience (which, fair), and found that to be more than a little disingenuous. But in a movie with layered storylines and perspectives, the answer is more complicated. In the moment, Harding was speaking directly to the screenwriter, Steven Rogers (assuming the line happened verbatim). More generally, she could have been referring to the media, or to the people who gobbled up the Harding/Kerrigan feud at the time.
But if my friends are right—if the film is indicting us for watching—is that wrong? At what point does the audience become complicit in the act of the text? Ascribing the film the level of seriousness it wants involves acknowledging our own involvement in the narrative, and that’s uncomfortable (possibly more uncomfortable than envisioning what the fish’s penis looks like in The Shape of Water).
Ultimately, it seems the reason I, Tonya wasn't taken seriously by the Academy turns out to be the same reason that Tonya Harding herself wasn’t taken seriously by US Figure Skating—they just don’t look the part. Where Harding didn’t dress right or come from a nuclear family home (at least, as posited by the film), I, Tonya isn’t about a noble cause or a tortured artiste or a coming-of-age or the Second Fucking World War. It’s about us, right now, and unlike the estimable Best Picture nominee Get Out, which uses the lens of horror to show us—that is, liberal white people—our own role in racism, I, Tonya gives it to us more or less undiluted. (And, for what it’s worth, I worry more white people than we’d like to admit confused the act of seeing Get Out with actual serious racial self-examination—a fault of the audience, not of the film; still, I’ve got my fingers crossed for Get Out to win.)
In some ways, it’s kind of a beautiful echo, maybe one that is worth more than the award itself; because, if either Harding or I, Tonya got the acclaim they deserved, those authorities would subsume them, perhaps even smother them. Harding may wish she’d gotten an Olympic Medal, or maybe simply that she’d been allowed to continue to skate, but the fact of the matter is, nearly a quarter of a century later, there are no movies titled I, Kerrigan or I, Yamaguchi. By the same token, let The Post or The Shape of Water or The Phantom Thread join the ranks of films like Crash and Chicago and A Beautiful Mind; statues come and go, but an enduring, intelligent, and incisive story can last forever.