I, Tonya

It's hard to believe it's nearly a quarter of a century ago, this story, because it feels like yesterday. I moved to Seattle late in 1993 (and Portland in 1994) so I was out there when this was going on, and that spring felt cursed with sad and surreal stories (Kurt Cobain's suicide, OJ's “low-speed chase”). This 2017 movie reminded me to get out this half-completed scrapbook I started around that time that I fondly called my “White Trash” book. It's a glued together collage art thing, which includes images and articles cut from magazines, mostly about celebrities who I was for the most part celebrating, including Mickey Rourke (articles about him were, at one time, insane and priceless), Ellen Barkin, Courtney Love, Drew Barrymore, and other favorites (though also included some who creeped me out, like Oswald, Kitty Kelley, and weirdly, on the very last page, a picture of Donald Trump in one of his tacky properties). I have more pictures of and articles about Tonya Harding than anyone, including two Newsweek covers. Her story was, to me, at first inspiring, then weird and fascinating, and finally sad and heartrending.

I was an undeniable fan of Tonya Harding as a figure skater. She was an outsider, and I found that inspiring, as I'm sure many people did, and for awhile there, no sport in the world was as captivating as skating, partly due to her. This movie shows a lot of that, and that's my favorite part of this movie—it allowed me remember and relive some of that excitement. The rest of this story, however, is pretty tragic, and the movie doesn't claim otherwise, and it also doesn't claim to get totally at the truth—much of which will never be known. In fact, with its comic, pseudo-documentary style, it starts right out by admitting that we're going to be subjected to some conflicting and less than factual portraits of the lives of its subjects, and the “incident.” This approach, strangely, has the opposite effect of leading the viewer to think the filmmakers actually do have some inside track on what really went down with everyone, and audiences (which includes a lot of people who weren't even born at the time of these events) are likely to perceive this movie as the last word on what really happened, which is troubling.

Well, some of it was fun, some funny, and it was almost emotional for me to revive these memories, like the Triple Axel, and then the tragic Nancy Kerrigan knee-bashing, and the Olympic events. One of the most memorable moments, for me, was Tonya's broken ice-skate lace, her crying, pleading to the judges. It was well-recreated, and is still one of the more baffling and tragic moments in my personal sports fan history. What this movie also shows, that I never read or thought about—or maybe did but tried to forget—was the endless tales of physical abuse, first by Tonya's mother, then her boyfriend/husband. It's hard to watch. It's treated in this movie seriously, on one hand, but then maybe not so much—which, in the minutes since the movie has been over, I've become increasingly disturbed by. I don't feel the movie makes these characters relatable to the audience. As good as the acting is (it's very good) throughout, the movie is a clear wall between us and the characters—though maybe that's just me. It's possible that victims of physical abuse, watching this movie, feel that much is speaking for them. But I feel like the movie is saying, “Look at these savages. Aren't we glad this isn't us?

Well, ultimately, I'm okay with an approach of being able to laugh and be entertained by a story while also trying to include a serious message—but that's very tricky business. Maybe just showing the abuse is enough. And the movie was, for the most part, entertaining. One place it was trying very hard, though, and wasn't working for me, was with the endless montage segments over which a loud, period, popular song played. If I wanted to hear someone play hit song after hit song I'd go to a bar with a DJ—and then I would't; I'd stay home and play music I actually like. I lost count, eventually, how many times there was a wrenching dramatic scene followed by the an overly loud explosion of a song, over which a montage scene was cut to the music. These scenes often employed slow-motion and intense sound dynamics in an attempt to heighten the emotional impact. As far as I'm concerned, a movie can get away with that kind of thing maybe once (and depending on how it's done, maybe not even once). But those segments came one after another until I felt like I was being bludgeoned. And worse, in many of the scenes, the music was over scenes of Tonya literally being bludgeoned. The music rights budget for this movie must have been staggering, and I'm all for musicians making some money this way, but it wouldn't make me too happy to hear my music (or even music I really love) over scenes of brutal, physical abuse and violence. By the time of an ironic placement of Doris Day singing “Dream a Little Dream of Me” over some disturbing images, I felt like standing up in the theater and yelling, “Enough!” I didn't do that, however, and I realize some people might enjoy the very things I hate. I'm okay with that. Some people don't like my favorite things, and I never liked MTV, and when the late night TV plays a re-run of The Big Chill, I start to watch it until I realize it bugs the shit out of me.

Randy Russell 2.5.18