Movies take so long to write and plan and shoot that when one comes out that actually reflects the moment we are living through, it seems like a minor miracle. In the case, of “I, Tonya,” which stars Margot Robbie as the infamous Tonya Harding and is one of the more delightful feature films of 2017, it may be that the twin issues it obliquely addresses—Trump-style class resentments and the disregarding of women’s stories—are simply constants in American life. They might have seemed relevant anytime—which is sad but not enough to dampen the urgency of an exhilarating film.
Tonya Harding was not a very likable character when she was at the top of the women’s figure-skating world—and that, “I, Tonya” wants us to know, says as much about us as it does about her. She was hardly an innocent bystander in her own bad branding, but her public persona, which the media helped create and perpetuate, was of someone somehow gaming the system. She wasn’t lithe, she wasn’t pretty, she wasn’t a princess—she wasn’t, in other words, Nancy Kerrigan, who embodied all the virtues by which the U.S. skating establishment wanted to promote itself.
Tonya Harding wasn’t lithe, she wasn’t pretty, she wasn’t a princess—she wasn’t, in other words, Nancy Kerrigan.
When Kerrigan got whacked in the knee prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer—a clumsy attempt at career assassination that may or may not have been orchestrated by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and about which Harding may or may not have been aware—it made for the kind of drama Americans love: one with heroes to cheer and villains to boo and, especially, one in which a poser gets her comeuppance. At Lillehammer, Kerrigan won silver; Harding broke a shoelace.
Her flaws aside, Harding was a remarkable athlete. The triple axel, which became her trademark, has been performed successfully up to this day by only eight female skaters in international competition and helped Harding win the 1991 U.S. Championship. But that fact got lost in a fog of melodrama and mystery, something the screenwriter Steven Rogers exploits ingeniously. In executing a kind of triple lutz of perspectives and arguments, Rogers has this scene or that interrupted by one or another of the characters, disputing the veracity of an account, pushing the narrative in another direction, stepping through the fourth wall. Where you land is up to you, but you do get everybody’s spin.
When Kerrigan got whacked in the knee prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, it made for the kind of drama Americans love.
Everybody includes LaVona Golden, Harding’s gorgon of a mother, who is given a poisonous portrayal by Allison Janney. The actress, for whom Rogers wrote the part, should, at the very least, be in the running for the Oscars this time around, and so should Robbie, though the role of Harding is far subtler and reactive. Harding was tough, Robbie makes clear, but also something of an accomplice in her mistreatment, segueing from her abusive mother to her abusive husband (a terrific Sebastian Stan in a thankless role) and not having the wherewithal, financially or emotionally, to grasp the freedom that her talents dangled before her. And in this, we see the perpetuation of an almost hereditary American bitterness take root and flower.
The LaVona of “I, Tonya” pushes her daughter relentlessly, but her pugnacious vulgarity is also Tonya’s biggest handicap. She reflexively resents anything or anyone she perceives as feeling superior to her—which means everyone and everything—and she alienates anyone who might help her daughter professionally. That she is an early manifestation of Trumpian America is not something the film has to point out. “I never apologized for growing up poor or being a redneck,” says the older Tonya, being “interviewed” for the film. (Robbie plays Tonya, seamlessly, from her teens to her 40s). Lavonna actually expects an apology, though from whom is not quite clear.
The director, Craig Gillespie, whose “Lars and the Real Girl” (2007) was a very different but equally delicate balancing act, handles “I, Tonya” expertly, juggling shifting points of view and modulating tones and treating the more sordid aspects of Harding’s life—the domestic violence, notably—with no unnecessary judgments or exploitation. It is a very civilized film about uncivilized people, with flashes of comedy and a good deal of pathos. There is little question it comes down on the side of Tonya Harding, but even less that audiences will do the same.