Mark Cunliffe 🇵🇸’s review published on Letterboxd:
Time was, Hollywood would make a Nancy Kerrigan biopic. A story about how, an exceptional figure skater and appropriate ambassador and role model for America was heinously attacked and suffered potentially career-damaging injuries but, to the amazement of all, overcame the odds to win a silver medal at the Winter Olympics. Cue stirring music over look of triumph on the actor's face, fade to black and wait for the Oscars to roll in.
But something very interested has happened to Hollywood in that the focus has shifted. Now, the industry want to tell the morally complex stories. They're more interested in the ambiguous (anti) heroes and heroines who occupy the grey areas, or simply the out and out villains, than they are the good guys now. This approach can often fall flat on its face (Pain and Gain), other times it can divide audiences (The Wolf of Wall Street) and sometimes, it's pulled off like a triple axel. I, Tonya is that triple axel.
Everything about I, Tonya more or less works. The soundtrack is brilliant, Margot Robbie delivers an incredible performance, and there's a good balance between the drama and the humour. This last bit in particular is key, because the absurdity of what occurred in 1994 cannot be ignored. They say truth is stranger than fiction and Craig Gillespie and his screenwriter Steven Rogers certainly get that in their approach to the subject matter. Earlier this year I read the Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, a book that explores how the TV series Seinfeld not only impacted upon the world at large but that it also seemed to subconsciously shape it too. Was it really the reality of 1994 that a man called Newt Gingrich was in the senate and that the rivalry between two figure skaters led to a brutal yet deeply incompetent assault, Keishin Armstrong argues, or was it a Seinfeld episode? Gillespie addresses not only the bizarro situation by willfully heightening its comic potential (Paul Walter Hauser's Shawn Eckhardt is clearly a Newman-like contact of Kramer's) but by repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge the wildly contradictory opinions expressed by the real-life protagonists. In doing so, he borrows liberally from Michael Winterbottom's excellent 24 Hour Party People. That's the kind of thing that can be very foolish to do, but if you're going to steal you may as well steal from the best, and thankfully Gillespie manages to make it work for his own purposes.
It's not a flawless film though. It could be argued that Gillespie is too cavalier with the incidences of violence that occur throughout (and are integral to) the movie. The scenes of domestic violence are played almost comedically, as if it's just another happy-go-lucky chapter in the life of Tonya Harding and that can send out all kinds of wrong messages. This is further expounded by the fact that, in choosing to represent all sides of this conflicting tale, he allows Jeff Gillooly to dismiss any accusation that he was ever violent towards Tonya, just as later Tonya is shown to shoot at a fleeing Jeff, before turning to camera to assure us that, from her POV at least, this never actually happened. It is here that the film is most reminiscent of Winterbottom's aforementioned Factory Records biopic, with its infamous scene of Buzzcocks' Howard Devoto cleaning a toilet in which his fictional self is seen screwing Tony Wilson's first wife, Lindsay. "I don't remember this happening" he says to camera. In both films, it's a funny scene, but it ought to be remembered that these scenes stem from personal pain someone has gone through and that they only exist to act as a compromise in order to avert lawsuits.
Likewise the film has a duty to Kerrigan that it often fails. Gillespie becomes so fixated on Tonya's story that he forgets to pay the victim in all of this the respect she deserves. It's a real shame that, for a film that was keen to address how hard a hand life had dealt a talented young woman like Tonya Harding, it didn't want to give any such due to Nancy Kerrigan. Maybe I'm a touch to sensitive but when the film was released I did have to wonder what Kerrigan made of all this sudden interest in the people who, the court found, attempted to ruin her life. Maybe the truth is Kerrigan wanted nothing to do with the movie, I don't know, and that's fine of course and totally understandable too, but Gillespie ought to have known when to draw the line at some of the opinions expressed in Rogers' screenplay purportedly from Harding herself.
Overall, it might not have got the full marks from the judges, but I, Tonya comes damn close. I really enjoyed this and I think Robbie thoroughly deserved her Oscar nomination and probably should have got it with her performance here. I wish I could say the same about Allison Janney who did pick up the gong for Best Supporting Actress. Don't get me wrong, she's really great in it, but it's an easy Oscar win for a part that has all the work already done for a performer. The Academy love those grouchy scene stealing turns.