Most of all, I remember the wailing. You probably remember it, too: Nancy Kerrigan, sitting in her white beaded leotard, clutching her kneecap, teeth bared in feral agony. “WHYYYYYYY?” she roared, launching the question again the moment it was done. “WHYYYYYYY?” The clip got played on a near-endless loop on CNN; if you were growing up in the early nineties, it got burnt into your brain the way earlier generations memorized the Zapruder film. Unlike the Kennedy assassination, however, we found out the WHYYYYYYY of Nancy Kerrigan’s mysterious schlonking pretty quickly: it was rival skater Tonya Harding, along with her husband Jeff Gillooly and a motley assortment of clownish acquaintances, each of whom withstood about three milliseconds of police and national scrutiny before giving up every detail of their involvement. The story took a surreal turn when the Winter Olympics fell right in the middle of the investigation, and both schlonker and schlonkee went to Lillehammer. We were all glued to the tube, wall-eyed on the drama—watch them share a practice rink! Watch them go in circles studiously not looking at each other! I didn’t know anyone who was rooting for Tonya—maybe a few deeply disturbed hometown fans in Oregon? Prison blocks? The International Federation of Disney Villainesses? She placed eighth, Nancy placed second, and the story was over. Until this week, I still didn’t know any Tonya fans.
That shit’s about to change.
“I, Tonya” is that rarest of movies: a biography that gets at the thorny complexity of a real live human being, flaws and brilliance given equal and loving dimension. And the human being they’ve chosen is a handful: crude, belligerent, wildly self-contradictory, clutching an asthma inhaler in one hand and a cigarette in the other, still wearing the regrettable barrel-rolled bangs of the 1980’s, Tonya Harding (brilliantly played by Margot Robbie) is no one’s idea of easy to love. The razor-sharp script, written by Steven Rogers, imitates the SNL treatment of famous buffoons like Sarah Palin, adding little embellishment to the already incredible on-the-record statements of Harding’s abusive mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and loutish self-proclaimed “bodyguard” Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser). Instead, Rogers’s script splices their statements together in a clever braid of past and present that encourages us to question first the characters’ memories—and then our own. As it turns out, while we were all watching the wailing woman in white, there was a terrifying, aggressive, embattled woman in neon who might have needed our attention even more. This weekend, I strongly suggest you give it to her.