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My 12 for ’18: “I, Tonya” and the Post-Truth Biopic

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number two.

One of the interesting things about being an Irish film critic, as opposed to an American film critic, is that it does make the end-of-year top tens rather… jumbled.

Piracy and social media have done a lot to close the gap between cinematic releases in peak blockbuster season. Movies like Mission: Impossible – Fallout and Avengers: Infinity War tend to be released day-and-date around the world in an effort to prevent bootleg copies and spoilers cutting into those profit margins. The conversation about such films tends to be instantaneous or nigh-instantaneous, as it is with even off-season blockbusters like Mary Poppins Returns or Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In contrast, awards fare is still staggered. The “big” and “populist” awards fare films tend to synchronise releases across the globe; A Star is Born, First Man, Bohemian Rhapsody, Widows. However, the smaller and more eccentric films end up staggered across the New Year. So although I have seen If Beale Street Could Talk, ViceStan and Ollie and The Favourite, they are not eligible for this end of year countdown.

In contrast, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and I, Tonya both make the countdown of my favourite releases of 2018, despite the fact that the bulk of the conversation around them (and the bulk of their cultural context) was anchored in 2017. It is something that seems strange, even as I go through my end of year list, feeling like I’ve arrived late enough to the party that I might as well just order breakfast.

Being honest, and speaking personally, I find some comfort in this. I’m not a writer particularly comfortable with lists and rankings. Although I’ve started affording star rankings to films on my Letterboxd account, just out of curiousity, it is highly unlikely that this block will ever move away from the relaxed “non-review review” format, that is more interested in the “why”, “what” and “how” of the film in question than any notion of ranking or tallying its relative strengths and weaknesses. Even my end of year top tens favour novelty and interest over basic competence.

Over the past few years, I have repeatedly discussed with friends about the process of ranking and rating films. In particular, I find it much easier to praise a movie’s merits the further that we get from its release. I feel more comfortable assessing the value of a film the easier it is to divorce a film from the maelstrom around it, the more opportunity that I have had to chew over the film on rewatch. This is a fancy way of saying that I don’t mind the annual spill over from 2017 into 2018, as it gives the films in question longer to sit with me, and gives me more time to process them.

I, Tonya was a breath of fresh air when it was released in late 2017. It was also, undeniably, a movie that spoke to the particular cultural moment. The story of Tonya Harding is familiar to the point of being iconic. It is a pop cultural touchstone for anybody who lived through the nineties. In fact, I, Tonya even acknowledges this ubiquity both by including footage of David Letterman mocking Tonya and by wryly suggesting that I, Tonya might best be viewed as a stealth prequel to Ryan Murphy’s superlative American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.

Tonya Harding herself never really became a celebrity. She was never able to parlay her notoriety into fame in the way that other famous criminals have been. Unlike Mike Tyson, Harding never got to cameo in The Hangover or to anchor an animated series like Mike Tyson Mysteries. Unlike O.J. Simpson, she has never been able to parlay her crimes into a profitable industry for herself. Instead, Tonya Harding largely remains the butt of various jokes, such as getting her own verse in Weird Al Yankovich’s Headline News.

I, Tonya understands this, walking a fine line between sympathy and contempt for its leading character. It never shies away from her abusive background and the challenges that she faced trying to break into figure skating, but it also understands the horrific consequences of the actions that Harding set in motion. I, Tonya allows Harding to be, by turns, sympathetic and repulsive. Her own sense of trauma is juxtaposed against the contempt that she shows for Nancy Kerrigan, who managed to recover from her leg injury to place second at Lilyhammer.

More to the point, I, Tonya is a film that is very invested in the question of how and why certain stories get told. It is an incredibly reflexive and self-aware piece of work, as much a commentary on the standard biographic feature film as an example of one. It is a story engaged with the way in which narratives are constructed and massaged in order to suite particular agendas, about how the historical record can be distorted or warped in order to advance a given narrative.

I, Tonya repeatedly and consciously blurs the line between fiction and reality. The film has a docu-drama framework in which the actors playing the characters address the camera like talking heads in a documentary. Characters will tell competing and contradictory versions of events, often denying events depicted on screen. At one moment, during a sequence in which Harding chases her husband through the house with a shotgun, she boldly declares, “This never happened.”

Similarly, I, Tonya is very consciously aware that it exists as part of its larger cycle. Even in exploring the victimisation of Harding, it is perpetuating that victimisation. I, Tonya understands that it is just as complicit in the denigration of Harding, that Poe’s law makes it difficult to distinguish between satire of a thing and the thing itself, and that depiction of a thing can often be confused with or interpreted as endorsement of that thing. At one moment, Harding is allowed to address her criticism directly to the camera and the audience, warning them, “You’re all my attackers too.”

I, Tonya is a film that overtly and consciously acknowledges the limitations of the biographical film, conceding that such films are inevitably anchored in particular perspectives and designed in order to develop particular narratives. The opening text sets the tone, assuring viewers that the film is “based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” The rest of the film makes a point to emphasise how their accounts are competing, contradictory and self-serving.

I, Tonya is in some ways an extension of the blurring of the boundaries of factual basis and fictional flourish in films like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big Short. It is very much in the same style as Vice, a biographic picture which repeatedly and bluntly acknowledges the limitations of the biographical picture format by drawing the audiences attention to both the idea of inherent bias in certain accounts and also the reality of how hard it is to know how another person thinks.

These are films that consciously trade on the audience’s understanding of genre and storytelling in a manner similar to the way that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse trades off the viewer’s appreciation for superhero storytelling in order to cover a lot of narrative ground in a short amount of time and much like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is anchored in the audience’s familiarity of the standard redemption narrative that it so brutally subverts. These are films that understand that modern audiences are familiar with how films work.

More than that, though, these films speak to a particular contemporary anxiety. “Truth” has always been a somewhat precarious concept, history often stitched together from a variety of perspectives each advancing their own arguments. However, “truth” seems much more precarious in 2017 and 2018 than it has at any point in recent memory. Reality itself seems to be coming apart at the seams.

This is an era where the Trump administration openly lied about matters as petty as the attendance at Trump’s Inauguration on his first day in office, to the point of doctoring the official images to suit his narrative. This is an era where the Trump administration will openly lie about why a reporter was banished from the press pool, releasing a doctored video of the incident to support their claim. This is to say nothing of the lies around the Brexit campaign vote, or the reality that developments like “deep fakes” are making it harder and harder to distinguish fact from fiction.

I, Tonya leans into this postmodern stew, presenting a film that structurally and thematically resembles the conventional biographical film, but which also reflects the uncertainty of the modern era. By adopting the format and appearance of a much more conventional film, I, Tonya is able to do something much more interesting and subversive. It is not so much a standard biographical film as an exploration of the conventional biographical film. It is reflexive, self-aware and self-assured. It is a biographical film for the post-truth era.

4 Responses

  1. I liked I, Tonya

  2. margot robbie is a gem. Sad to see her in mary queen of scots really

    • Yep. And so fruitless. The part was clearly written for her, but she’s give eff-all to do except act sad that she doesn’t have babies. (Also… eh… what were the writers thinking?)

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