The title of this film is perfect, subliminally referencing the 1934 Robert Graves Roman-era classic, “I, Claudius,” thereby lending gravitas to what would otherwise be considered a tabloid biopic. This masterful movie grabbed my attention from the first frame and never lost it the entire time: not one slow or wasted frame. This, I imagine, is a sign of good script-writing, good acting and good editing. The style reminded me very much of that Australian ground-breaking classic: “Strictly Ballroom” by Baz Luhrman. I would call this style “Mockumetary,” also utilized by the director Christopher Guest in such films as “Best in Show.”
The premise is that the talking heads and interviewees are real and not actors playing roles. The format—mimicking as it does, the actual documentary—leads the audience into believing that the events are true and drawn from reality. The style lends verisimilitude to the material in the way that German playwright Bertolt Brecht spoke of the “suspension of disbelief.” We, the audience, are willingly manipulated into believing that the actress Margot Robbie is the actual Tonya Harding.
The defining moment of Tonya’s career as an Olympic figure-skater is, of course, the attack on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. This is not the central concern of the film, “I, Tonya.” The audience is clearly allowed to make up it’s own mind about what really happened from the conflicting “facts” and “evidence” supplied.
The central concern of “I, Tonya” is not figure-skating, nor is it the expose of “real-life crime.” “I, Tonya” is about classism, privilege and domestic violence. The myriad ways in which Tonya is rejected from the rarified world of elite athletics is clearly shown in the bias against her dirt-poor, redneck background. Tonya’s life of extreme physical abuse, first at the hand of her own mother and then at the hands of her husband, show how a life of violence warps a person, how physical abuse becomes normalized, how the victim is educated into a life of physical violence. This background puts the attack on Kerrigan in a different perspective: physical attack is a normal occurrence in the world of Harding; the way in which conflict is resolved.