I, Tonya has a snarkiness that’s sharp enough to cut ice, which makes it an entertaining watch. But something about that style also makes me suspicious of it as an empathetic exercise. And that’s clearly the movie’s goal: to offer a fuller understanding of the life and experience of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), the unconventional Olympic hopeful whose bid for glory fell apart when associates of hers arranged a 1994 attack on fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan.
There is no doubt we come to understand more about Harding than the tabloid coverage of the time offered: her lower-class roots, which made her stand out among the other skaters, even as a child; her endurance of domestic abuse, first at the hands of her mother (Allison Janney) and then her eventual husband and conspirator Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan); her sheer talent, including a history-making triple axel. Robbie’s performance, in particular, reveals a woman whose drive and discipline helped her overcome extraordinary odds. (There’s an amazing moment of recognition, late in the film, when she looks into a mirror and realizes that everything she’s worked for is about to be lost, and we see the determination that has carried her for years begin to melt away.)
Yet rather than trust the performance, writer Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie employ a winking structure that’s anchored by recreated interviews with Harding, Gillooly, and Harding’s mother, each of whom also pause during the dramatic scenes to offer sly commentary to the camera. In these moments, I, Tonya is having as much fun with Harding’s story as the Hard Copy reporters and late-night TV show hosts did at the time, even though the movie shakes a moralizing head at both of them and us in the audience. Gillespie just can’t resist a shot of Harding stubbing out a cigarette with the blade of her skate, for instance, and I partly understand—it’s a giddy image. The movie also can’t resist making a buffoon of Gillooly’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who idiotically plans the attack and continually insists he’s an espionage expert. He doesn’t get an ounce of the empathy the movie extends to Harding.
As such, I, Tonya doesn’t really dispel the derision and anger that was directed at Tonya Harding in the 1990s as much as it transfers those emotions to new targets, particularly Eckhardt and Harding’s mother (Janney is deliciously evil, and also too easy to hate). For a purer expression of empathy towards Harding, I’d recommend the video for Sufjan Stevens’ “Tonya Harding,” which sets his original song against her triumphant performance at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “Tonya Harding” simply allows her talent to stand alongside her tabloid history in ways that challenge our assumptions about her. I, Tonya is having the same old fun with that history, while offering a dollop of empathy on top.