Disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding has long been a target of much mockery, but it feels especially off when that mockery resurfaces decades later in the form of a movie that clumsily dresses itself up as a sympathetic portrait intending to set the record straight. Craig Gillespie’s darkly comic mockumentary I, Tonya certainly captures the craziness of the events that led up to and include the 1994 assault on fellow American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, but it does so from high above the character it feigns empathy for.
While Gillespie aims to document the tragedies of Harding’s (Margot Robbie) life, which included hatred spewed forth by a viciously venomous mother (Alison Janney) and a long history of domestic abuse at the hands of ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), he struggles with locating and executing an appropriate tone, settling on ironically comical and eventually becoming stuck in a downward spiral of condescension.
Harding’s life really was terribly tragic and Gillespie doesn’t hold back from how despicably her mother treated her and how violent and constant Gillooly’s abuse was. It’s not hard to feel sorry for Harding and the hell she endured, but it is difficult to believe at any point that the movie actually cares about her, which makes for an increasingly insincere experience.
The decision to frame scenes with reenactments of actual interviews given by the main players applies an additional layer of artificiality that serves only to highlight the ridiculousness of the situation that Gillespie seems so fascinated by. Janney sits on a couch and says mean things to the camera as a pet bird nibbles at her ear, while Stan calmly denies the abuse allegations and Robbie chain smokes her way through explanations of her innocence.
It’s not the content of these mock interviews that’s the problem because the content is apparently authentic, so instead it’s the inability of the actors to make any of this feel remotely genuine. The whole concept of a mockumentary approach with recognizable actors playing real people is basically an act of setting oneself up for failure since the illusion is so quickly and easily shattered, but Gillespie trots out this format for the entirety of the movie and it’s never the least bit convincing.
The takeaway is that Gillespie is banking on the utter absurdity of the interviews and their contradictory angles to add fuel to the movie’s tonal fire, hoping to inspire some awkward guffaws along the way. Even as they emphasize the attempts at humour, the interview segments are never funny, only irritating, and the whole approach feels stale from the start. Throwing in Bobby Cannavale as a Hard Copy reporter that offers no insight beyond a reminder that Hard Copy once existed epitomizes the rambling pointlessness of the mockumentary style.
In between the interviews, we watch as Harding’s skating career trajectory is warped by the imbalance in her skill and class. While she’s arguably the most talented person on the ice at competitions, she lacks the demure looks and prohibitively expensive outfits that the judges unfairly consider of equal importance. It’s another cruel twist of fate in Harding’s life, that this unique gift has landed her in a corrupt sport that punishes her for simply being herself.
There’s certainly room for sympathy at this point, but Gillespie can’t quite figure out how to show it while retaining his dark sense of humour, so he simply continues to poke fun at the situation. Gillespie relishes the opportunity to ridicule the redneck stereotypes that Gillooly and his boneheaded buddy Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) represent, which again steers the movie into trivialized territory.
This is where the most infamous part of the tale comes into play, though, as a suggestion to wage psychological warfare on Harding’s competitor Nancy Kerrigan with a few mailed death threats grows into something far more sinister when Eckhardt takes matters into his own hands and hires two other clowns to violently up the ante.
Gillespie’s focus here seems to be on absolving Harding of any blame, since even the conflicting perspectives in the interview segments seem to favour her version of the events, suggesting that she was never privy to how far Eckhardt’s hired goons planned to take the attack. This elevates Harding’s story to another level of tragedy, showing how what she would become known for, the event that would end her skating career, was something that quickly spiraled out of her control.
But the tragedy never effectively registers because Gillespie has been working on a side effort to distance his protagonist from the audience in a bid to illuminate the movie’s primary point that the masses love a nasty villain as much as they adore and idolize a virtuous hero. The message is obvious, its delivery oblivious.
I, Tonya is first a very mean-spirited look at the sensationalized story and later a silly afterthought of an attempt to criticize both the media and the viewer for being so judgmental of someone who was simply trying to realize their dreams. While the concept of turning up the volume so that Harding’s voice can be heard all these years later is a good one, it would be better served if her voice wasn’t used to merely deliver another punchline.