Movies based on real stories are always problematic projects. Even the most principled of filmmakers are likely to fudge the truth when forced to choose between honesty and dramatic effect.
But what is truth? If we’ve learned anything at all from “Fire and Fury,” Michael Wolff’s tell-all exposé of the Trump White House, it’s that one person’s truth is another person’s propaganda. The good journalist does the hard work needed to determine the accurate parts of conflicting stories.
Filmmakers, though, are not journalists. Their only responsibility is to art as they individually see it. And so, if they seek to explore a world filled with characters, each of whom sees a specific series of events from a different perspective, they just have to figure out which dueling storyline to follow.
In his film “I, Tonya,” director Craig Gillespie didn’t even go that far. In adapting Steven Rogers’ screenplay, Gillespie chose to follow a number of contradictory storylines at once. And like Michael Wolff, he lets the audience judge who’s telling the truth.
One aspect of that truth is this: Tonya Harding was a two-time Olympian who won the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championship. She was also the first woman to successfully complete a triple axel in championship competition – a feat she duplicated at the ’91 World Championships, where she placed second.
But the enduring truth is this: Harding was implicated in the assault on her competitor Nancy Kerrigan, whose Olympic chances were nearly ruined when a man named Shane Stant smashed her in the knee. Stant was hired by both Shawn Eckhardt, Harding’s so-called bodyguard, and Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband.
Though never charged with direct involvement in the attack on Kerrigan, Harding pleaded guilty to “conspiring to hinder prosecution of the attackers” – an act that allowed her to avoid a prison sentence but ended her skating career.
Australian-born director Gillespie, working from Rogers' screenplay, tells Harding’s story in a manner that wavers between both these so-called truths. And in doing so, he flirts with both drama and comedy.
The drama is obvious: Born into poverty, raised by a demanding, abusive mother, abandoned by her father, and abused – she claims – by her husband, Harding was tough, determined and utterly unlike her more refined figure-skating peers.
The comedy comes both from the film’s attempts to meld several conflicting accounts – told by each of the central characters, from Harding, Gillooly and Eckhardt to Harding’s coach, Diane Rawlinson – into a single storyline and from its desire to make us believe that storyline, which would seem too ridiculous even for a Jerry Springer episode.
Harding claims that Gillooly beat her. Gillooly, of course, denies it, which is the movie’s way of resolving its various opposing perspectives. Much of “I, Tonya” unfolds as a kind of reality-show mockumentary, with each character – older but hardly wiser – speaking directly at the screen.
That works mostly because, for a small-budget film – Gillespie reportedly had just $11 million to work with – the cast is brilliant. Margot Robbie, who learned to skate for the film, nails Harding, while Golden-Globe winner Allison Janney is an acerbic marvel as her mother. Sebastian Stan gives a mostly understated performance as Gillooly, and Paul Walter Hauser provides darkly comic relief as Eckhardt.
Ultimately, “I, Tonya” is a sad story. In the end, though, who you have most sympathy for may just depend on whose story you choose to believe.