WASHINGTON — “I, Tonya” is a movie that is, in places, very difficult to watch. But it is also impossible to look away.
This biopic about the briefly famous, then infamous Tonya Harding has offended some reviewers by putting child abuse and domestic violence in close proximity to comedy. But it would be difficult to tell Harding’s story without both elements.
Harding’s mother, LaVona, (the way the movie portrays it) motivated her young daughter’s dedication to skating with beatings and demeaning cruelty and eventually threw a kitchen knife into her daughter’s arm. LaVona (played with vicious charisma by Allison Janney) also excels at emotional violence. At one point — after the attack on Harding’s main skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan — LaVona finally tells her grateful, tearful daughter how proud she is of her achievements on the ice. But Harding discovers that her mother is actually recording the conversation in a ploy to sell a confession to the tabloids. Harding’s husband, Jeff Gillooly, not to be outdone, smashes his wife’s head into a wall and shoots a gun at her. Nearly everyone who is supposed to love Harding hurts and betrays her.
But who could possibly invent a stranger comic story than the conspiracy against Kerrigan’s knee? Gillooly plots with self-described international counterterrorism expert Shawn Eckhardt (actually a professional loser and Star Trek nerd who lives with his parents) to send death threats to Kerrigan. This somehow morphs into the hiring of two hit men (quite literally in this case) to strike Kerrigan’s leg with a retractable baton, in an attempt to disable her before the 1994 Olympics. This caper has all the hallmarks of comic exaggeration: the insanely bad planning, the utterly transparent cover-up, the panting eagerness of the participants to turn against each other. But none of this was fiction. Eckhardt, in particular, is a reminder that cartoon characters actually walk among us.
This mix of malice and absurdity results in a darkly humorous movie. There is a danger in laughing at cruelty — the risk of becoming hardened against horrors. It is less problematic to laugh at horrible people. There are instances — as in this movie — where contempt and mockery meet.
The moral core of “I, Tonya” is clear enough. Harding is a difficult, occasionally obnoxious person, for whom we end up rooting without reservation. She emerges from a crucible of dysfunction and abuse as a remarkable figure — at one point, the best in her field. In a world where the judges wanted a princess, she was an athlete. Their preference for “artistry” was revealed as snobbery. Harding’s working-class background and hand-sewn costumes were noted at the time — now (amazingly to me) 25 years ago. But the real story was how a flawed, vulnerable young woman managed to show such strength and excellence even while surrounded by abusive fools.
The fools eventually brought her down. There is little evidence that Harding participated in planning the plot against Kerrigan. There is plenty of evidence that she trusted the wrong people.
But “I, Tonya” is ambitious beyond these details. The movie points to the danger of imposing a simple narrative on events. I vividly recall the Harding/Kerrigan scandal and Olympic showdown, which occupied the country for months. Before I saw the movie, I honestly could not remember if Harding was innocent or guilty. Yet in the back of my mind, I thought she exemplified guiltiness. The country had created a drama with a villain and a victim. There was no room for humanizing complexity. It is possible, it turns out, for a story to have two victims.
In the cause of our narratives, it is our tendency to draw massive conclusions based on scant evidence. The movie indicts tabloid television — which was a rising force at the time — as particularly prone to this destructive form of simplification. But Harding eventually turns to the camera and accuses the audience sitting in the theater of the same thing. When she says, “You’re all my attackers, too,” it is a moment of genuine discomfort.
Elsewhere in the movie, Harding argues, “There is no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth.” It is facile and destructive to claim that truth itself is relative. But all of us see truth from our own angle, and there is wisdom in recognizing that our view can be skewed. As “I, Tonya” demonstrates, the world is often more complex — and more interesting — than our narratives.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.