From the opening credits, in which it’s announced that what we’re about to see is “based on irony free, wildly contradictory interviews,” it’s clear that I, Tonya is no ordinary biopic. While there might be a clear biographical arc here, focusing on Tonya Harding’s (Margot Robbie) relationship with her mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her marriage to Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and the assault on Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Olympics, the tone of the film as a whole is too irreverent and hyperbolic to leave even the slightest sense of factual verisimilitude. Instead, like American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson, Steven Rogers’ script and Craig Gillespie’s direction offers something akin to camp historiography – an orientation towards the past that deliberately refuses to venerate its pastness in order to expose and contemplate power structures that were incapable of being properly articulated the time. More specifically, like the OJ Simpson trial, the assault on Nancy Kerrigan was a flash point that required identity politics as a point of reference, but that was also defined partly by its pervasive disavowal of identity politics as a category of enquiry. As a result, I, Tonya, like American Crime Story, is equally as interested in irreverently interrogating the way in which its true crime narrative was constituted at the time, and set up as a cautionary lesson for posterity, as much as providing the audience with any cathartic moment of truth.
To that end, Gillespie skewers the ponderous forensic style that has become so inextricable from true crime films, series and podcasts over the last decade, instead imbuing his camera with a vertiginous, hyperactive, kinetic potentiality that finds its natural counterpart in Harding’s spectacular figure skating sequences. Even when we’re off the ice, it feels as if we’re gliding queasily and breathlessly across the rink, as Gillespie imbues even the most quotidian of encounters and exchanges with a giddy tipsiness that makes it feels as if the camera is perpetually on the verge of catapulting over its own ambition. Like NFL or boxing, figure skating is a remarkably difficult sport to visualise from the inside, so kinetic and elastic are its movements, and Gillespie and Nicholas Karakatsanis’ cinematographic innovations here are not unlike those of the best NFL and boxing films, as their camera continually tries to envisage and inhabit the sublime moments before and during Harding’s triple axel in particular, the move that brought her into the annals of figure skating and became such a critical part of her routine. As might be expected, that suffuses I, Tonya with a remarkable buoyancy and momentum, and Harding herself with a remarkable resilience, with her figure skating here arising out of her increasing dexterity and elasticity in dodging people trying to hit, strike and subdue her – and, in the wake of the assault on Nancy Kerrigan, hee efforts to elude every camera trying to scrutinise and “read” her face and body.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Gillespie depicts Gillooly watching the OJ trial on the morning after the media decamp from outside his house, since these hyper-kinetic camera movements feel like a direct descendent of the elaborate crane shots of American Crime Story, just as the ice rink functions in a similar way to Lance Ito’s courtroom as a site of scrutiny and sadism. In both cases, the directors favour pans that quickly and elastically oscillate between extreme close-ups and extreme long shots, as if the process of continually situating their respective stories within a wider context – rather than the story itself, or the context itself – were the real focus of their films. Acrobatic and cloistered at the same time, these camera angles and approaches work to suggest some unbearable, crushing, claustrophobic scrutiny, to the point where scrutiny and abuse amount to the same thing, and the demands of Harding’s figure skating judges and of the media after the assault amount to the same maleficent gaze, culminating with the traumatic sightlines of the enormous stadium at Lillehammer – the first venue that Harding skated following the assault. Among other things, that’s why the anonymous threat of a sharpshooter in the audience – the threat that supposedly sets the Kerrigan events in motion – feels so real and visceral to Harding, with the film almost suggesting that it was the prospect of this panoptic scrutiny, and the insatiable need to deflect it, that prompted the assault in the first place.
Of course, that begs the question of whether I, Tonya is just another iteration of this scrutiny, and yet part of what makes Gillespie’s statement so powerful is that it never exempts itself from this panoptic gaze, which is to say that it never purports to offer an objective account of Harding’s life, but never fully indulges in self-awareness and metafiction as an exemptive device either. Instead, the film recognises that the very idea of documentary, or docudrama, is complicit in the forces mounted against Harding from the outset, with Gillespie instead resorting to camp, rather than any claim to forensic verisimilitude. That imbues I, Tonya with an extraordinary dynamism, in which we’re never permitted an authentically confessional study of Harding as an individual, but also never permitted any kind of seriously or systematically articulated approach to her context either. In that respect, part of the genius of I, Tonya – and American Crime Story – is to realise that the discourses of rationality and civil debate are already so aligned against the possibility of identity politics that identity politics itself can only ramify as a kind of impoverished or debased discourse, replete with conspicuously tacky, tasteless and unkempt moments of narrative detritus and redundancy. Nowhere is that clearer than in the way in which the assault, and Harding’s interpersonal relations with Kerrigan, are pushed to the edge of the story, albeit never elided in a self-consciously auteurist or experimental way either, but instead performatively failing to ramify as the film’s apparent moment of focus and convergence.
If the film is “true” to Harding in any especially emphatic way, then it’s in this gesture, if only because she promulgated a similar aesthetic on the rink in her taste for detritrus and marginalia. After all, no female figure skater, before or since, has clarified the extent to which female figure skating is a performance of class and femininity – femininity as class, and class as femininity – with Harding either playing up and hyperbolising this demand for performative femininity, as in her recourse to ultra-masculine rock in place of the more traditional accompaniment of classical music, or discarding it altogether, as in her use of home-made clothes and fashion detritus in lieu of the high-end skating outfits more typically used to garner the judges’ approval. Exposing the conventions and contrivances of figure skating at the same moment at which she inhabits and performs them, Harding’s routines here are presented as what Deleuze and Guattari would call a line of flight – a point of escape from an apparently impossible bind that culminates with her proclivity for ending her routines by spinning round and round in a single spot until utterly indiscernible to the audiences and judges, and immune to the wider scrutiny of the stadium, in a kind of logical aesthetic endpoint of all the film’s ceaseless, giddy queasy trajectories.
That performative self-discipline of the female body often makes figure skating feel like an ancestor (or ancillary) to the emergence of music video, especially the big budget, dance-centric music video that became so prominent in the 90s, and whose popularity coincides with the final stages of Harding’s career. As a result, and despite being a period drama, I, Tonya feels very contemporary in the seamlessness with which it segues in and out of music video sequences, not merely on the ice, but in Harding’s personal life as well, which tends to be orchestrated around a propulsive, near-continuous score. The result is a radical continuity between the world on the rink and the world off the rink that beautifully encapsulates how the same discourses that oppressed Harding before and during her figure skating career – the very discourses that in some sense constituted figure skating as a sport – were brought to bear on her future by Gillooly, as well as the way in which the media framed their relationship with respect to the assault on Kerrigan. Bypassing the “issue” of her culpability to evoke the continuity between the more exploitative demands of figure skating and the audience’s own exploitative investment in Harding’s “true” story, the film ends with her chilling statement that “it was like being abused all over again, except this time it was by you, all of you” before a brief epilogue detailing her boxing career. After a lifetime of eluding abuse and scrutiny, it’s a natural transition, with the film dating her boxing life from the moment when Gilooly hits her in the face after she asks if he coordinated the assault – the last time he ends up striking her before she leaves for good, and, in this extraordinary rendition, the pinnacle of her sporting achievements.