A man with absurd ’90s glasses sits in a living room. He responds to an interviewer: “Everyone remembers The Incident differently and that’s a fact. Some people honest-to-god remember Tonya whacking Nancy herself.”
The scene flashes to a woman in a pink figure-skating costume bringing down a baseball bat on a fallen figure.
The woman in pink is Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. The woman under the baseball bat is her competitor Nancy Kerrigan. This is The Incident: the attack on Kerrigan in 1994 and the subject of the film “I, Tonya.”
Conflicting accounts define the 1994 scandal, accounts the movie’s film editor Tatiana S. Riegel and its leading lady Margot Robbie — both nominated for Oscars — must wade through in their undertaking of Tonya’s story. They must untangle confusion and contradiction in an attempt to create a narrative. And they do, flawlessly and hilariously.
The above version of The Incident — “Tonya whacking Nancy herself” — is only one version. And it’s just plain sensationalized. The facts are not as easy as Tonya Harding at the Ice Rink with the Baseball Bat. The only fact is that nobody agrees. Memory confuses fact. Sensationalism replaces memory. This is the movie’s challenge.
But here’s the verdict most sober people accept: In 1994, less than two months before the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, Kerrigan left her practice rink in Detroit and was clubbed on the knee with a retractable police baton by a hit-man, whom the FBI later connected to Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (the ’90s glasses guy).
It’s speculation over the extent of Harding’s knowledge of and involvement in the attack that maddened the America of the 1990s.
“I, Tonya” undertakes the challenge to capture and comprehend the disparate events leading up to The Incident and its subsequent fallout by re-enacting and fitting together — as the opening text frame specifies — “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.”
A film with so many narrators can look like a Picasso portrait in its variety and disarray: a face with two noses and three eyes. But this isn’t a horror flick, so the movie shouldn’t look like Victor Frankenstein’s Creature. The final product is comprehensive, if not cohesive — and in execution, a really charming Picasso portrait.
While tackling her master-artist job of stitching together a narrative through film frames, Riegel does not merely recognise divergences between interviews’ accounts, but celebrates — even flaunts — them.
But not every scene is as dramatic as the one I describe above. Some of her cuts are more subtle.
After Tonya first hears about Nancy’s attack, she gets in the car with Jeff and his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), to hear, with puzzlement, their fragmented squabble about their guilt in the attack of Kerrigan. As the conversation goes on and the two men speak more explicitly about The Incident, Tonya becomes less and less vocal, until the camera fails to even show her face.
In the next scene with Tonya and Jeff in a hotel room, Tonya acts ignorant, as though she had never witnessed Jeff and Shawn’s suspicious exchange. How can she be present yet not hear what is said? Riegel presents us with a glaring silence. At this point in the narrative, accounts fail to line up, narratives clash, and Tonya silently bows out.
Riegel’s isn’t the only Oscar-worthy skill. As the trailers and advertisements promised, Robbie’s performance proved a masterpiece. She pouted, fought back, and skated and spun and fell till she bruised.
Yet when I first heard of the casting, Robbie struck me as an unusual — almost idealistic — choice for the role of Harding; her tall stature, imposing cheekbones, and wide-set almond eyes differ from Harding’s small yet powerful body, soft face, and eyes that strive toward the bridge of her upturned nose à la Amy Adams.
Soon after I learned of the ’90s scandal (through the Sufjan Stevens’ song “Tonya Harding”), I asked my mom, who saw all unfold as it played across televisions everywhere, what she thought of Harding.
“She was a hard woman,” she said.
When I compared Harding’s cute features to those of Amy Adams, my mom scoffed: How could I compare such a feminine actress with the figure skater she remembered as “hard”?
With her model body and her past role as Harley Quinn, the DC Comics diabolical darling, Robbie certainly brings sex-appeal to Harding’s story. But the casting choice also lines up with public-memory: Robbie’s razor-blade cheekbones cut ice and knees.
Baseball bat or no baseball bat, Harding stands, as Stevens says, “America’s sweetheart with a dark twist.” She rises, rags to riches, in her triple-axel marvel to the American Dream, only to fall again in scandal. Robbie captures this grotesque tragedy perfectly:
Tonya sits before a mirror in her silent dressing room moments before her Olympic Free Skate performance, smears lipstick and blush over all her public and personal tragedy, and gives the mirror a gruesome smile through tears and a rattling exhale. She’s ready for her final show.
The film has lots of accounts to answer to — Harding’s story, Kerrigan’s pain, hard copy’s hot take, your grandmother’s eager opinion — and Riegel and Robbie undertake the burden and accept it in all its difficulty and depth.
“I, Tonya” wrestles with truth, a struggle Tonya herself understands all too well: “And the haters always say, ‘Tonya, tell the truth.’ But there’s no such thing as truth. I mean it’s bulls — . Everyone has their own truth. And life just does whatever the f— it wants.”