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Front Page - Friday, February 2, 2018

Truth is, ‘I, Tonya’ is a really good movie

I think we all remember where we were when we heard that figure skater and Olympic contender Nancy Kerrigan had been attacked after a practice session at the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit.

OK, maybe not, but I think most of the people reading this column can at least recall the infamous incident, the alleged involvement of her rival, Tonya Harding, and the media circus that followed.

If you don’t remember the details, that’s OK because both Harding or her ex-husband, or both, seem fuzzy on them, as well. That’s according to the biographical black comedy, “I, Tonya,” which details the life of Harding and her alleged connection to the attack.

“I, Tonya” is based on interviews screenwriter Steven Rogers did with Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, after watching a documentary about figure skating that mentioned Harding. During the Q&As, which Rogers conducted separately, Harding and Gillooly either remembered things differently or lied.

That could have presented a project-killing dilemma to a lesser screenwriter. But instead of throwing his hands up in futility, Rogers saw the divergent stories as his conduit to making the film. Instead of demanding universally accepted and proven facts, he would toss everyone’s statements on the screen and let the audience decide what happened.

And what a potpourri of perspectives it is. There’s Harding, who casts herself in the role of the victim; Gillooly, who wants the audience to believe he was an innocent bystander; Harding’s mother, LaVona Fay Golden, who tries to pass off her physical and mental abuse of Harding as tough love; and Shawn Eckhardt, a bodyguard and friend of Gillooly’s, who should have won a Darwin Award in 1994 if he didn’t. The Coen Brothers would have a field day with this guy.

As a result, “I, Tonya” might or might not contain the truth about what happened. This is the rich irony of the film, since one of its draws is the suggestion that it will offer insight into what took place.

Margot Robbie, who plays Harding, says as much when she breaks the fourth wall by looking at the camera and exclaiming, in her best redneck drawl, “This is what ya’ll came for, isn’t it? The incident!”

So, while “I, Tonya” might not offer a definitive depiction of the events surrounding the attack, it is an utterly fascinating study of the effect of the unreliable narrator (or, in which case, narrators) on an audience.

Like a cinematic smorgasbord, the film allows viewers to pick and choose what they think happened. I found myself feeling sympathetic toward Harding, who claimed to have suffered a tremendous amount of physical and mental abuse growing up and during her on again, off again relationship with Gillooly.

The one aspect of “I, Tonya” that’s not entertaining are the scenes depicting that abuse. Director Craig Gillespie was careful not to go too far, lest viewers mistake the violence for sensationalism, but it’s there and it’s brutal. Whether Harding had a hand in Kerrigan’s attack or not, that kind of cruelty is going to break a person and then remold them into someone else.

Gillooly, of course, claims none of it happened. The beatings, smashing Harding’s hand in a car door, firing a gun at her – none of it. The police reports, the eyewitness accounts – all hogwash.

Then again, some might ask why Harding would subject herself to such abuse. Surely she’s making a play for the audience’s sympathy.

While that thought might outrage some viewers, that pliability is one of the brilliant things about “I, Tonya.” Like jurors in a court of law, you and I could weigh all the evidence as it was presented and come up with entirely different conclusions.

Standing together in this maelstrom of accusations, contradictory statements and general holliganism are Rogers and Gillespie. Rogers did an excellent job of remaining neutral and presenting through the written word the facts as they were given to him.

Gillespie does likewise from behind the camera, and in doing so, provides the clearest sense of what each narrator thinks of him or herself. Consider the scene in which a shy Gillooly is trying to work up the nerve to kiss Harding for the first time. Or the gorgeous slow-motion shot of Harding performing her historic triple axel jump in competition.

In real life, the jump took only a second or two, but Gillespie stretches it out for 20 or 30 seconds as he shows what Harding considers to be her defining moment – a moment of breathtaking beauty and grace that was lost in the frenzy that followed.

While I’m discussing Gillespie, can I just say, “Wow?” I’d never seen anything he’d made (including “Lars and the Real Girl”), so I didn’t know what to expect, but I loved his direction, especially the way he allowed the environment to impact how he shot the film.

Gillespie shot most of the abuse scenes indoors using tight close-ups and what appears to be a handheld camera. This emphasizes Harding’s claim that she was trapped in whirlwind of abuse. But on the ice, where Harding had all the room in the world, Gillespie allows the camera to roam free, soaring around Harding as she skates and then zooming in to catch her triumphant expression. It’s exhilarating stuff.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the behind-the-scenes work on “I, Tonya,” and perhaps even rising above it, are the performances. While audiences see movies for a variety of reasons, I suspect the acting is only occasionally a motivating factor. With “I, Tonya,” it should be THE factor.

Both Robbie and Allison Janney, who plays Golden, disappear into their characters to project the personalities of living, breathing people. Especially impressive is how each actress is so authentic in her presentation, she projects that character’s perspective through her performance.

While Robbie swings wildly from bruised and bloodied abuse victim, to Disney princess, to foul-mouthed, temperamental, working class trash, to indignant loser (and back again), Janney has the pleasure of settling into one odorous, repugnant keel and riding it all the way to the end. Both women are great fun to watch – the film becomes something akin to electricity when they’re on screen together – but Janney steals the show. She alone is worth the cost of the ticket to see the film.

“I, Tonya” has a lot of things on its mind, and I’ve touched on only some of them. But this is a good place for me to stop. Just go see it. It works exceedingly well as pure entertainment, but beneath all the fun is a deeper movie that challenges viewers to look beyond the sensationalism for something resembling the truth – even if it’s the notion that the truth is unknowable.

As I peered into the heart of the movie, I saw the public, feeding on Harding, Gillooly and the others like millions of snapping piranhas, making judgments about people they couldn’t possibly know. I was there, too. Or maybe I wasn’t.

Actually, I’m not sure where I was when I heard the news about what had happened.