In "I, Tonya," truth is slippery as ice

Margot Robbie recreating Tonya Harding's history-making moment of triumph at the 1991 U.S. Championships. (Film still courtesy of Neon and 30West.)

Margot Robbie recreating Tonya Harding's history-making moment of triumph at the 1991 U.S. Championships. (Film still courtesy of Neon and 30West.)

The screen is black.  There is a cough.  And then another.  This is the first 30 seconds of “I, Tonya.”  It is all the time necessary for those of us familiar with anecdotal details about Tonya Harding’s life to know that the screenwriter and filmmakers had done their homework.

Tonya Harding, a living series of contradictions, is an asthmatic who undermined her athletic career by smoking and, consequently, coughing.  Coughing is the first sound – and smoking the first view – of Margot Robbie portraying Harding on the screen.   

In watching the rest of the movie, there were a lot of perplexing issues related to knowing this story as well as those of us who covered it know this story.

The first time I saw it, in a theater at October’s Chicago International Film Festival, I got hung up on trying to reconcile the film’s narrative with the facts.

My next three viewings, on a screener provided by the film’s distributors, Neon and 30West, allowed me to see “I, Tonya” for what it is as a movie:  a clever, farcical, sarcastic, wonderfully acted comic tragedy (or tragic comedy?).  But I came away feeling the film had mistakenly fallen in love with Tonya, making it prey to the temptation to pardon Harding for her missteps, her irresponsible behavior and her willful waste of a generational talent. 

This absolution is the easy way out, the one this movie opening Friday in Chicago (and Jan. 5 nationwide) pushes.  It focuses on Harding’s hardscrabble childhood; her allegedly constant abuse by an oft-married mother, LaVona Golden (whose incarnation via Allison Janney is an Academy Award-worthy tour de force); her dysfunctional marriage with another abuser, Jeff Gillooly; the figure skating officials monolithically portrayed as penalizing female skaters if they did not fit some amorphous idea of an ice princess; and the sport as the province of only rich kids, notwithstanding the blue-collar backgrounds of such champions as Carol Heiss, Peggy Fleming, Rudy Galindo and. . .Nancy Kerrigan, to name just a few (all of whom, like Harding, had a number of financial angels.)

Actions, like smoking, have consequences, a causality Harding never seemed to - or wanted to - understand.

The real LaVona Golden and her pet bird in a scene from "Sharp Edges," a 1986 documentary on Tonya Harding by Sandra Luckow.

The real LaVona Golden and her pet bird in a scene from "Sharp Edges," a 1986 documentary on Tonya Harding by Sandra Luckow.

The image of Golden (and many other principals, especially coach Diane Rawlinson) in “I, Tonya,” notably the scenes of Harding’s mother with a parakeet on her shoulder, is drawn from a 1986 documentary on Harding, “Sharp Edges,” done by Sandra Luckow, then a Yale film student.  Luckow, who also trained with Rawlinson, said that by 1986, when Harding was 15, Golden was virtually out of her daughter’s life. 

In “Sharp Edges,” which Robbie has credited as a source for her sense of the story, both Harding and Rawlinson mention Golden’s abuse almost matter-of-factly.  “She (Golden) is a good mother, and she isn’t a good mother,” Harding said.  “She hits me and she beats me.” 

"I, Tonya" screenwriter Steven Rogers went heavy on that angle, with scene after scene of violence involving Golden, Gilloolly and Harding, with each seen as perpetrators.  The screenwriter had done extensive interviews with Harding - who, it should be remembered, the FBI said lied to them after the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.  Judging from the title cards on the screen at the end of the movie, no one was able to reach Golden.  "LaVona Golden, or `Mrs. Harding’ as I knew her, was not the monster as portrayed in `I, Tonya,'” Luckow said in an email.

Of course, no outsider could know the truth, and insiders filter it through individual prisms.   And no one should minimize domestic violence of any type or the long-term, damaging impact such experiences could have had on Harding.

But one should also not forget that she rose above it, and those caricatured-as-heinous figure skating officials gave Harding her due.  Making history at the 1991 nationals as the first U.S. woman to land a triple axel, Harding become national champion and world silver medalist (in her world meet debut) during that winter, getting the first perfect 6.0 score for technical merit at the U.S. Championships since Janet Lynn in 1973 and finishing ahead of soon-to-be nemesis Kerrigan twice.  Early the ensuing fall, Harding landed triple axels in both the short program and free skate to defeat 1991 world champion Kristi Yamaguchi on Yamaguchi’s turf to win Skate America.  Four months before the 1992 Olympics, Harding unquestionably was a favorite for gold.

“I knew I was the best figure skater in the world.  At one point in time,”  Robbie’s Harding says in the movie.  Having covered Harding live at the 1991 nationals and worlds (as well as for several years before and after),  I know that assessment was not an exaggeration.

If only Harding had trained a little more (or even a little) between Skate America and the Albertville Olympics.  If only she had taken others’ advice on jet lag into consideration rather than sashaying into France about 55 seconds before the competition, dog-tired and disoriented.  For all that, she still finished fourth.  That’s how good Harding was.

Did all the psychological baggage from Harding’s fraught relationships with Golden and Gillooly drag her ineluctably into a morass of indifference that kept her from a dedication to her craft that might have made her Olympic champion?  That is how the film sees it.  Is it the correct way?

“There’s no such thing as the truth,” Robbie says in voice-over late in the movie.  That is a sidelong echo of the film’s explanation (in title cards early in the movie) of its plot development:  “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.”

We do see a moment in "I, Tonya" when Harding comes to grips with the reasons for her failure.  It is a few  months after Albertville, when her character is working the early shift in a greasy spoon.  The Rawlinson character, whose every-hair-always-in-place persona is captured perfectly by actress Julianne Nicholson, comes by the diner with some news for Harding and prefaces it by telling the skater a calculated lie: “You look well.”

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Replies the skater: “I look like someone who had a way outta this shit and fucked it up.”

The news the coach then delivers is that Harding can have another chance because the “Olympic committee announced today the next Olympics are going to be in two years instead of four.”  That announcement actually was made in 1986, when the International Olympic Committee decided to separate the Winter and Summer Games after 1992, putting the Winter Games in the middle of the four-year Olympic cycle beginning with 1994.  That fudging of facts moved the story along, but it also unintentionally showed just how fortunate the timing was for the film's star-crossed Tonya.

From there, everything builds to the moment of truth (as it were):  “I mean, it’s what you all came for folks!  THE FUCKING INCIDENT!” Robbie says.

The next scene shows an oily reporter from Hard Copy rubbing his hands in joy, as the movie begins to put THE INCIDENT into a larger context.  (My colleague Chris Brennan first identified that framework in a 2014 NBC Tonya-Nancy documentary, for which I also was a contributor.)  That context is the leering tabloidization of how we started to look at all such incidents.  Some see Tonya-Nancy as the start of such coverage, and it reached critical mass with the O.J. Simpson Bronco chase six months later (coincidentally linked to sports both because of Simpson, the former football superstar, and because it forced NBC to cut into Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals.)  “I, Tonya” includes a brief snippet of the Simpson incident, a template for coverage of every star-goes-bad scandal that followed.

Some coverage of THE INCIDENT did make Harding into a cardboard cutout, a trailer trash Cruella de Vil involved in a metaphorical attack on cute puppies.  And some of it made victim Nancy Kerrigan equally one-dimensional as a storybook ice princess, which led to shrieks of incredulity when Kerrigan defied that image in her reaction to getting silver rather than gold at the 1994 Olympics (“I mean, how am I the poor sport in all of this?” Harding says in "I, Tonya") and her unhappily taking part in a Disney World parade after the Olympics.

“I, Tonya,” all but uses the Officer Krupke Defense as exculpatory precedent for Harding, whose degree of complicity in the attack on Kerrigan remains a legally unanswered question.  During that memorable song from "West Side Story," a gang member explains his criminal behavior by saying,  “I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived.”

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Even by stacking the deck with selected omissions and hyperbole and using title cards at the end to emphasize Harding's current status as a hard-working, devoted mother, the film does not rehabilitate her.  Nor does it let you see how the Kerrigan of today has grown into a thoughtful person in full, a mother as well.

What "I, Tonya" does best is capture all the wonderful absurdities of this surreal story, from Paul Walter Hauser’s deadpan, spot-on portrayal of braggadocio bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt, who “planned” the hit, to cheeky, truth-telling scenes like those of Harding trying to get into shape for 1994 by running with a bag of dog food on her shoulders.  Says the Rawlinson character: “She actually did this.”  As Tonya moves on to tasks that seem even more improbable, Rawlinson says each time, “And this.”  Sure.  Whatever you say.

Over the years after THE INCIDENT, I often thought Hollywood would never dare a cinematic treatment of a story in which even a documentary approach seemed implausible, given how bizarre and slippery the raw facts of the narrative already are.  There was not only the gang that couldn’t whack straight but Harding's broken shoelace drama at the 1994 Olympics and, in years that followed, Tonya threatening a fellow motorist with a baseball bat and claiming she was being stalked by golfers.  By treating it as a so-called “mocumentary” that makes Harding into a picaresque heroine, “I, Tonya” works as an entertainment, blending its sympathetic spin of Harding with a caustic and ironic look at an oft-told tale.

As the end credits near, the film falls back on archival footage of the joyous highlight of Harding’s career, the history-making triple axel at the 1991 U.S. Championships.  Dick Button’s gushing on the ABC telecast is a perfect fit for a life story that soon would go over the top.

You get to see nearly the entire four-minute 1991 free skate.  Triple lutz.  Triple axel (exultation!!!), triple-toe-triple toe loop combination.  Triple loop, triple flip, triple salchow-double toe combination.  Double axel.  All clean, but for a possible two-footed landing on the triple toe combination.

It was a program that lacked the extraneous frippery needed in the current scoring system, but one that stands the test of time.  And it forcefully reminds us, as the movie says, that Tonya Harding was, for a brief, shining moment, the best figure skater in the world.  How she went from there to THE INCIDENT was something that defies the simplistic Officer Krupke explanation “I, Tonya” gives.  The truth is she had a way out and fucked it up.