Wednesday, February 7, 2018

"I, Tonya," "Molly's Game," and the Idea of the Modern Olympic Movie

Scene from I, Tonya
*Note: Spoilers for I, Tonya and Molly's Game

If a sports movie is supposed to be a triumphant vision of the self, then an Olympics movie should be something grader; like the combination of athletes competing for the gold medal in an Avengers-esque story. After all, it is a journey on the world stage where many countries have risen to the challenge and the country is sometimes more important than the individual. It's the type of logic that has fueled Olympic movies like Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire before, depicting the strength of a country in time of need. With the Pyeonchang Olympics set to begin this weekend, it seems like a chance to see triumph on film. So why then are the films currently available (and Oscar-nominated) a bit more of a down note? While there have been upbeat stories in recent years (Eddie the Eagle, Race), there's a sense that an Olympic movie in 2018 isn't about the competition, but a metaphor for self-identity. The films I, Tonya and Molly's Game depict this struggle in different ways - often with Olympics being the last thing on their mind - but come clear on one point. The Olympics are a game of personality politics, and these two films capture it in the news media age.

To some extent, the idea of a depressing Olympics movie isn't new. Munich focused around a massacre. Later films Unbroken and Foxcatcher both feature brutal punishment towards athletes in different ways. For whatever reason, 2017 marked the release of two films that are simultaneously similar and different. I, Tonya and Molly's Game are both about former athletes pulled from their sports in shameful manners. For I, Tonya, it was breaking Nancy Kerrigan's leg. For Molly's Game, it was breaking her own leg. The amount of time at the appropriate Olympics (both winter games) differs significantly. But there's one more thing that comes through bigger than any powerful moment of acting: the voice-over. As cameras flash, these tragedies are told from the perspective of the women who lived it, facing lives that are at best second-tier to making their countries proud. There's a bitterness underneath their words, but the show must go on - and we all must find a way to make a living.

In 2018, the use of social media thrives a culture that wants their news instantaneous and gives into knee-jerk reactions. It's a time where Hussein Bolt grandstands as he runs, managing to brand himself on a world stage as something hip and cool, as well as being the ghost. It's a time where Ryan Lochte can go to Brazil and become a public shame for one night of misdeeds - even leading to a recurring gag in last year's failed Baywatch movie. These are icons who need to be on their best behavior for those few weeks, in large part because the cameras are catching more than the two or three minutes of action. They're following them for interviews, looking for controversy where they possibly can. The idea of tearing down a public figure has always been the drive of gossip rags who make their name off of other people's misery, and it's hard to not see a part of I, Tonya as possessing the root of an Olympics that would come to fruition in the 21st century.

In the film, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) talks alongside a series of talking heads recounting the events that lead to the infamous event at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994. Among them is a Hard Copy anchor named Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale). He is the outsider to these speakers, which includes family, boyfriends, and accomplices. Martin is almost a comic relief, choosing to add hyperbole to the incident in a way indicative of the changing media landscape. If it bleeds it leads, and Harding's assault on a teammate qualified as being very bloody given her already unpleasant reputation. The tragedy ruined her career, but Harding sits with a cigarette and a cracked voice, demanding to right the story that Martin has helped popularize. She is a victim in all of this, having lived a terrible life of abuse both physical and mental from everyone who ever loved her, including her fans. She thrives for the moment where everyone applauds as she does the triple axle, but it's undermined by the public's perception of her.

For the Olympics (and sports in general), the media has become a Catch-22. On one hand, figures like Bolt can fuel off of press and become household names. On the other hand, one mistake can lead Harding to become a villain, unable to share her story when the interviewer would probably laugh her out of the studio. Her moment has passed, and she has to find ways to make ends meet, no matter how shameless they are. To add some irony, it has to involve the press in order to have any impact. She is trapped in a vicious cycle of criticism, and for an act that she claims was falsely attributed to her. I, Tonya is about correcting her own narrative, which may be indicative of the modern Me Too movement, but is also a frustrating look at how the Olympics are now covered. There's no way for Lochte to get the respect that he once did, because there's visual evidence to damn him in court. It's all impossible to escape.

Scene from Molly's Game
But those cameras keep flashing, and they thrive on embarrassment. While Molly's Game focuses on downhill skier Molly Bloom's (Jessica Chastain) one career-ending injury in which her ski interlocked with rubble on the field, it becomes a bitter study of competition in general. Through a brisk opening scene, Molly explores the subject of "What's the worst thing that could happen in a game." Some of the mentioned events were obvious, such as losing game nine of the World Series. She goes on to suggest that breaking your leg is much worse, especially since she has no choice but to retire young. Unlike Harding, Bloom became a name on par with the mentioned Matthew Robinson: the man who broke the world record for track at the Olympics in 1936 but still lost to Jesse Owens. Nobody remembers losers, and it's a bitterness that thrives underneath her competitive dive into the world of gambling.

In some ways, both films depict women disgraced during the Olympics, which is already antithetical to a film like Cool Runnings, which praises eccentric winners. Neither of these women won for their sport, but both had the camera on them at crucial moments that changed their lives. For Bloom, her story ends with a reporter commenting on her rising from the injury, as if to try and fight another day. Everyone has an opinion about these athletes, but they don't know the story. For Bloom, her story focuses on the criminal acts she participates in after the fact. She is still a disgraced Olympic athlete, but her injury made her into a tougher woman. In fact, Harding became tougher, too over the course of her public shaming. The only thing differing is that both hid panic from the cameras, taking dozens of pictures by the second and not caring to empathize the people they were writing about.

The descendants of Martin are likely somewhere in the background of Molly's Game, but they also might be at the Pyeongchang Olympics this weekend. As the culture becomes more obsessed with the tragedy and mistakes, athletes have become more vulnerable to criticism beyond how they perform. Their lives are defined by the media now, and suddenly it's more about being a commodity than representing your country with pride. There's no doubt that there will be some scandal, no matter how small, that rocks the world. It will become a meme on Twitter within hours, adding its existence to the infamous Michael Phelps cupping or pouting moment of the previous Olympics. Sometimes the media's attacks are innocent, but they're still ways of making embarrassing moments permanent to audiences who stand no chance of meeting these people. Odds are that those who saw I, Tonya and Molly's Game will also stand no chance of meeting Harding or Bloom, even if they feel like they have an intimate connection to them.

What does a modern Olympics movie look like? If acclaim and awards are anything to go off of, it's about understanding the actual context of the individual. The era of the sports team seems to have waned in favor of individuals scarred with notoriety to reclaim their status as people who made a few mistakes. It helps that Robbie and Chastain give great performances that elevate these figures to compelling forces of drama, but it also helps to understand that thriving for perfection has some unfortunate sacrifices. There's emotional stress, in part because as Molly's Game notes: a few seconds can tell the difference between first place and second. Jesse Owens could be the man nobody cared about if Matthew Robinson had been luckier. These are small moments where every detail matters, as long as it fits a narrative that's compelling. For Harding and Bloom, it was one of criminality. However, their films suggest that in an era where journalism is questioned regularly, it's important to hear both sides of an issue, no matter how mountainous the feedback from Twitter may be.

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