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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.

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Everyone’s a Winner, Baby: “I, Tonya”, “The Disaster Artist” and the Modern Biopic

Watching certain genres over a number of years, patterns emerge.

A lot of this is down to success and influence. A lot of studio output is driven by what worked in the genre in recent years. This is why so many studios have tried to fashion their blockbusters into a “shared universe” after the success of The Avengers, or why so many franchise reboots went dark and gritty after The Dark Knight. However, other genres also shift in response to trendsetters, albeit in more subtle and nuanced manners. Some of these shifts can be attributed to critical response or awards success.

For example, following the success of Peter Morgan’s intimate and tightly-focused biographical scripts for The Queen or Frost/Nixon, a lot of biographies adopted a similar approach to their subjects, focusing on one particular incident in a life (or in two lives) that could provide a microcosm through which to explore big issues. This led to other biographies that tended to be built around specific events in the lives of their subjects rather than adopting a more holistic approach, like RushMy Weekend with MarilynHitchcock, Elvis and Nixon, Battle of the Sexes.

In the past two years, an interesting trend has emerged in terms of biographical pictures. Historically, biographies have tended to focus on historically noteworthy individuals who accomplished great things; Gandhi, The Aviator, My Left Foot, Milk. Even more ambivalent biographies were usually defined by the sense that those characters had changed the world; Nixon, J. Edgar, The Social Network. However, the last few years have seen an interesting shift away from characters who actually accomplished tangible change, and those who tried and failed.

To be fair, there have always been biographies that acknowledged the valour of a failed attempt. Cool Runnings was a film about a the Jamaican bobsled team in which the characters did not even finish their Olympic event. Even in terms of fictional sports films, Rocky famously ended with the title character defeated after struggling for the entire film. However, in these cases, the film often acknowledged the valour in the attempt. The Jamaican bobsled team were competing for the first time and changing preconceptions about their country. Rocky was trying to pull himself out of poverty.

In contrast, more modern biographies seem willing to engage with the idea of failure to the point of mockery, exploring characters who have arguably been reduced to pop culture punchlines. Florence Foster Jenkins is the story of a socialite who cannot sing who dreams of performing in front of a rapt audience. Eddie the Eagle is the story of an awful skier who dreams of making it to the top of his profession. The Disaster Artist is the story of an eccentric with delusions of grandeur who through sheer force of will makes what might be the worst movie of all time.

This represents an interesting shift away from many of the conventions of the biographical feature film, providing a sharp contrast with the high-profile prestige pieces that garnered awards and glory in the twentieth century. After all, these movies are not spoofs or comedies. They are not subversions of the biopic in the same way that Walk Hard might be considered to be, nor are they broad comedies adapted from real events like Thirty Minutes or Less. While these films include comedic elements, they are very clearly intended as serious works intended for serious contemplation.

So, what does this shift actually mean?

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Non-Review Review: I, Tonya

I, Tonya is a biopic for the post-truth era. It is also brilliant.

The subject of I, Tonya will be casually familiar to most viewers, the figure skater Tonya Harding who was implicated in an attack on fellow figure skater Kerrigan. The incident was a flashpoint for the nascent twenty-four hour news cycle in the early nineties, although most people remember it as a warm-up for the O.J. Simpson case only shortly afterwards. As such, I, Tonya feels like the perfect window through which to examine the modern era’s obsessive celebrity-focused culture and the desire to turn our heroes into monsters for the audience’s viewing pleasure.

Putting her own spin on it.

I, Tonya is fascinating on that level alone. Its characters repeatedly break the fourth wall in an attempt to steer and control the narrative, but occasionally do so to indict the audience for their complicity. I, Tonya is a film that understands it cannot be about this media maelstrom without being part of this media maelstrom. There’s a canny knowingness to I, Tonya, an understanding that a movie about culture’s slipping grip on the idea of reality cannot be too earnest or too sincere.

I, Tonya repeatedly suggests that its story may stray into the realm of fantasy and fiction, but the movie still packs a real punch.

Get your skates on, mate.

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