"I, Tonya" and the Wide Angle Lens of Perspective
Time really does heal all wounds
I, Tonya, the new Tonya Harding biopic starring Margot Robbie, is not about rebranding the stars of nineties tabloids as heroes or villains—those labels are inherently inaccurate anyway. No, I, Tonya is about presenting the characters of this I-R-L melodrama in a way that the tabloids and news channels of the day, for the sake of ad sales and the burgeoning twenty-four hour news cycle, neglected to: as rounded, empathetic people. And it does this while bringing perspective and complexity to a story we thought we knew already by borrowing a trick from another recent, true-crime-inspired biopic: The Big Short.
The Big Short, in case you missed it, is the story of the mortgage and housing crises of 2005. Now, the thing about telling a story like the one The Big Short wants to tell is that it’s, well, big. And convoluted. And, I’m sure, incomprehensible in places. All of this makes the prospect of turning that story into a watchable two-hour theatrical movie a monumental undertaking for the scriptwriters and filmmakers. So, how do you tell a story as big as The Big Short without cutting any of the essential parts and without rewriting history?
There is a scene in the first act of The Big Short where Shipley and Geller are waiting in the lobby of J.P. Morgan Chase, thinking they’re getting a meeting about taking their investment firm to the next level. After the two young investors are blown off they find Jared Vennet’s Housing Bubble pitch on the coffee table in the lobby. Geller presents the prospectus to Shipley. The camera zooms in on Shipley’s face. Then the scene pauses and he looks directly into the camera and explains to the audience how this scene never happened.
What director Adam McKay did was film scenes that, while not strictly adhering to history, told the story in a way similar to reality, just faster and more effective (narratively speaking). Then he’d have a character in the scene turn, look directly into the camera, burst through the fourth wall, and come clean about how the film veers away from fact.
In addition to the scenes being more filmable than reality, these moments in The Big Short serve another dual purpose. First, they create a bond between the filmmakers and the audience. By coming clean about their own relationship with the truth, the filmmakers become more trustworthy as storytellers (which is important when crafting a biopic). Second, by presenting an alternate reality it gives the narrative of the film a perspective enhanced by the time lapsed between the events when they occurred and the present moment.
Perspective: Since the whole Harding-Kerrigan debacle leading up to the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Games, we’ve gotten a lot of it. As the film shows, the late eighties was an era of figure skating that required its female competitors appear wholesome, even virginal. But Tonya Harding, as portrayed by Robbie, was a real person with bruises on her face from where her husband, Jeff Gallooli, hit her, who dressed in handmade costumes because, unlike her competitors, her family could not afford to have them custom-made. All she had was hard work, talent, and a terrible home life. It was that last thing that, in the eyes of the judges, precluded her from joining the elite skaters of the world. Ironically, it is the same thing that may have, if she were competing today, given her a narrative to which many of us could relate.
Director Craig Gillespie takes full advantage of this shift in perspective to tell Harding’s story – proposing that, between 1994 and the present, we, as an audience have ceased to care about and believe in the image of the perfect, wholesome celebrity. More and more, in the age of reality TV, 24-hour news, and social media, we as a culture both crave and feel increasingly alienated from what is “real.”
The filmmakers underpin this sea change by employing the storytelling technique McKay used in The Big Short: He has the characters step out of the scene and address the factual inaccuracies of how the story was told by the tabloids and news outlets of the time. In doing so, I, Tonya accomplishes what didn’t seem possible in the wake of the events that made Harding infamous—it presents her as a sympathetic character; a person of tremendous faults but also tremendous talent who, at least in the terms of her athletic talents, was ahead of her time.
Like what McKay achieved in The Big Short, Gillespie achieves a level of believability that hinges as much on the truthfulness of the storytelling as on the way the story is told. And it does so without sacrificing any of the humor, depth, or strange, dark twists that Robbie (and costars Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan) bring to the film.