The alarming, unwholly matrimony of news and the internet finally came to a disastrous front in the last election, illuminating to many the serious challenges technology and more so accessibility bring to journalism today. The truth, however, is that these dangers have been both present and consequential for far too long. I’m referring, unfortunately, to the infamous, ubiquitous 24-hour news cycle. And it is this all American institution that the phenomenal I, Tonya attacks with the ferocity of a rabid bulldog, gashing its teeth through fresh wounds of unaddressed societal insanity while it hammers the complicity and direct responsibility of America and its press in the tragic fall of American hero Tonya Harding. In what is without a doubt in my mind the best movie of the year, I, Tonya puts on a filmmaking clinic as it perfectly balances tear-inducing sardonic wit with stomach-churning outrage, in turn delivering the Dr. Strangelove for this generation.
For those who either were not yet born or slept through the early 90s, I, Tonya follows the saga of American Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding as her once-promising career falls to shreds after her ex-husband hires someone to break teammate Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. Despite coming from extremely humble beginnings and experiencing severe physically and emotionally abuse from her mom and husband for years, Harding managed to achieve historic success and became the first-ever female American to perform a triple-axel. This, however, is not how she would be remembered. In the aftermath of the attack, the media turned the incident into a gargantuan overblown spectacle and Harding was tarnished as a sickening hick villain of mythical proportions. Despite her repeated contentions of innocence, America blamed Tonya for the attack and her livelihood was subsequently torn away from her as she was banned forever from skating. The true story behind the scenes, however, is one that no writer could have possibly come up with and indeed simply reciting the events in chronological order (as many biopics these days seem content to do) would have made for an entertaining couple of hours.
Luckily, this is not the road I, Tonya takes.
Driven by an unquenchable thirst for blood for the wrongs they perceive Harding has had to endure, director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers put damn near everything on the table as they ambitiously craft I, Tonya as a stunning condemnation of the lie of American equality and sloth-like journalism. It draws obvious inspiration from the best of Martin Scorsese, meticulously twisting an electric world filled with vivid characters, a liberal use of voice-overs, popping one-liners, and unreliable narration, but no Scorsese film ever had anywhere near the ideological ambition of I, Tonya and therefore it’s hard not to argue that this film surpasses even some of his best work. Every abusive sucker punch to Harding’s face and every blinding flash of a camera struck me with equal devastation, and the hopeless reality of Harding’s situation left me shaken for days.
Of course, these themes come off as inherently depressing on paper, but while tragic and infuriating, it’s vital to note just how entrancing I, Tonya was to watch. Unsurprisingly, Margot Robbie (who also produces) knocks it out of the park in her titular role. In a performance that is well worthy of Oscar consideration, Robbie excels as the foul-mouthed yet sympathetic square peg in skatings untouchable aristocratic hierarchy. In the end, though, it is the standout work across the board by the stellar ensemble that adds the truly delectable zing to the picture. Allison Janney will get the praise (and well deserved) for her scintillating yet comedic turn as Harding’s abusive mom, yet it is Sebastian Stan (Captain America) as Harding’s somber yet monstrous husband Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser’s breakout performance as bumbling yet uproarious “logistics man” Shawn (in yet another Oscar-worthy piece of acting) that truly bring the movie to new heights. Together, these characters are able to hilariously play off each other to create a spastic and unnervingly effective Shakespearean tragedy. Yet as strong as this ensemble was, for me it was ultimately the character without a face that was most effective at backing I, Tonya’s lofty accusations. I speak, of course, of the press.
More than just providing a breezy mixture of majestic tracking and low angle shots from the rink, cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis blurred portrayal of the hounding media creates a sickeningly claustrophobic atmosphere and helps transform the unseen monster into a very present antagonist. The looming flash of lights and colored dots even had the unnerving effect of putting me right into Harding’s shoes, and I felt her fear in a way that no tears or whimpering lips from Robbie could ever hope to coney.
Of course, I feel bad seeing the press as an enemy in a time where we need it more than ever, but I, Tonya is the difficult reckoning we all as Americans must face over our collective responsibility in the rise of a mainstream page 6 news. News so focused on ratings (or clicks), that facts and purpose are thrown at the wayside as previously professional journalism is turned into an interactive spectator sport. This is why I, Tonya’s successful use of unreliable and often opposing narration from the various characters is so crucial; more than simply compound the entertaining nature of the case, it shows just how inconsequential the facts behind this whole debacle are. What matters to the public is simply a good story, and any consequences are purely incidental. As Harding’s broken gaze chains us to our seats in one particularly powerful monologue though, we feel the disastrous repercussions of this dissociative mindset:
“It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.”
To America, Tonya Harding became simply a character. In suitably thrilling form, I, Tonya proves otherwise.