There is a scene about 3/4 of the way through I, Tonya in which the camera quietly sits with Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding as she tries (unsuccesfully) to pull herself together before her performance at the 1994 Winter Olympics. Tears flow from a broken Tonya as she shakily applies makeup in the mirror, then wipes them away and forces a smile. Neither Tonya nor the audience is convinced. This is a mask that is breaking down under the weight of public scrutiny and private turmoil. So what is it about Tonya Harding's story that brings us here today?
During one of the film's interview portions, Tonya (well, screenwriter Steven Rogers) makes the statement “America wants someone to love, but they also want someone to hate.” In this simple line of dialogue the mirror turns back on the 21st Century audience. America unfortunately IS a rage-based culture at the moment. Each week new sacrificial lambs are selected from society to criticize and blast until they delete their social media accounts, or just wither away. In a world of subjective truth and self importance, people now struggle with the concept of seeing beyond each other’s faults. What makes us who we are? What are the stories of those around us? What kind of heartache and pain has shaped us into the people we are today? I, Tonya makes a gutsy decision by actually listening to Tonya’s side of the story - even when it doesn’t line up with reality - and attempts to understand who she is as a PERSON.
For just a moment, the audience is asked to put aside their preconceived notions of the true Tonya Harding narrative fed to us decades ago by the media, and instead just listen…
When the audience agrees to listen, they will be faced with some uncomfortable truths. From the very beginning of the film we see the kinds of emotional and physical abuse Tonya faced at the hands of her mother (played by an unforgettable Allison Janney) and her boyfriend-turned-husband-turned-ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan, with mustache). Gillespie’s directorial decision are sometimes uncomfortable and painful. He allows the camera to unflinchingly watch as blow after blow lands on Tonya. We see the fights, we see through quick succession of shots the ongoing pattern of domestic abuse Tonya faced as a woman. Yes, the figure skating element is always present in the story, yet it never takes over, as a Disney-fied sports film might have.
Close up shots reveal the intense emotion (or suppression) in Margot Robbie’s face… her depictions of elation and triumph so much more potent because we’ve seen the tears and the anguish in a raw and vulnerable way. Gillespie’s Tonya is a human, above all. We are reminded time and time again throughout the film just HOW human she is.
So why the pain? Why can’t this just be a comedic satire of athletic fame?
I, Tonya understands the importance of compassion. Honestly, this is where it differs the most from the film it gets compared to the most, Martin Scorcese’s Goodfellas. While Scorcese’s crime drama is told in a similar storytelling style, featuring similarly depraved humans, it is lacking that ONE element that allows us to truly feel for Tonya - Compassion. Ray Liotta’s character arc in Goodfellas is more of a cautionary tale - a tragedy of the woes of pursuing excess and the slippery slope of sin. While the cast of characters in I, Tonya display a wide array of selfishness and depravity, we are always able to root for Tonya - because we’ve been allowed to experience her pain.
Sympathy goes a long way in film-making. It allows the viewer to truly experience catharsis at the climax. It allows us to relate, to feel, and to hopefully take a lesson home with us after we’ve left the theater. Tonya just wants to be LOVED. After her big win at the National Championship she says “They loved me!” and in this moment we suddenly understand WHY Tonya skated in the first place. It was all to prove herself because she constantly felt unworthy of love. She never received it from her condescending mother - she never received it from her abusive husband - and ultimately she never received it from the world. At the end of the day, she was the villain.. and nothing she did was ever good enough.
Spiritually, this broke my heart. There is a depth of longing within every human that NEEDS love. Not romantic love, not erotic love, just unconditional, AGAPE love. Tonya’s story is presented as a tragedy with a hopeful ending, yet the cynicism and fatigue present even at the close of the film is a stark reminder that there is only ONE source of love that truly fills that void in our soul. I was reminded of the beautiful and poetic verses from Romans 8 that say "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This love is a love that does not play requirements upon us to receive it, in stark contrast to the performance based cycle of hell that Tonya was experiencing at the hands of her mother and husband. Scripture once again says in Ephesians 2:8 "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” This stands as a marker and a reminder that the life we are able to have in Christ is entirely a gift of LOVE from God… Just because he sees us as his children made in HIS image to accomplish beautiful things throughout life.
This freedom is beautiful, it is necessary, and it is vital for living life to the fullest.
Each scene with Tonya reminded me of my tendency to try so hard to vie for the approval of others, and while I will still probably struggle with that for the rest of my life, it is good to know that in God’s eyes I am already seen as a perfect creation.
As I create music, as I write, as I figure skate - it is all a reflection of the love I have already received. This is what sets us free!
Enjoy your time at the movies, and don't forget to allow yourself to be challenged!
*I, Tonya is currently showing in theaters and will be released soon for home viewing.
It is rated R and contains adult language and situations, so use discernment in who you watch it with!