By Tim Estiloz
In the new film “I, Tonya”, the movie’s namesake muses aloud, “America. They want someone to love… they want someone to hate”.
In 1994, that viewpoint was never more accurately profound, thanks to the tabloid TV media narrative that exploded worldwide in the wake of a cruel, misguided attack on skater Nancy Kerrigan by a group of bumbling male goons. To the media, and eventually most of the observing spellbound world, the perception was one as simple as black and white. The elegant appearing Kerrigan was elevated by the media as the perfect “good girl” Ice Princess. Her rough and scrappy competition, Tonya Harding, was quickly denounced as untalented “trailer trash” suspected of masterminding the attack on Kerrigan just prior to the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
But as is often the case, not everything in life is as simple as black and white. In director Craig Gillespie’s film “I’ Tonya”, actress Margot Robbie superbly taps into the areas of grey in Tonya Harding’s story heretofore left ignored, unexplored, forgotten and, in some ways, misrepresented in the media’s zeal to find an easy villain.
“I, Tonya” digs deeper into the life of Tonya Harding to reveal an individual whose troubled life has far more nuance than the simplistically trashy perception depicted by the insane tabloid media frenzy of 1994, nor the erroneous punchline image of Harding as a talentless skating wannabe cemented by nearly a quarter century of late night comedians’ monologue jokes and others.
The film tells Tonya Harding’s life story from the perspective of its main protagonists, Tonya herself in the present day (Margot Robbie), her abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and her even more monstrously abusive and confidence sucking, chain-smoking mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney).
Director Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers chose this unusual, yet effective, narrative course based, in part, on actual pre-production interviews with the real Tonya and Jeff. Gillespie found both a thread of commonality in their versions of their lives together, and the infamous attack on Kerrigan; as well as wildly disparate recollections of those events and their three lives together. The result is an undeniably Rashomon-like narrative where the contradictory versions leave the audience to decide which version they choose to believe.
“I, Tonya” begins with her mother, depicted as a vile, foul-mouthed hard case waitress, who brings young, three-year-old Tonya to their local skating rink in Portland, Oregon for skating lessons. LaVona pushes Tonya onto the ice to impress an initially skeptical skating coach of the little girl’s innate skating talent. Tonya’s promising novice skill wins the coach over quickly and she begins to excel as a skater of raw talent in spite of her modest means and quickly revealed abusive home life.
Allison Janney as LaVona is as repulsive a mother one could ever imagine born out of a child’s worst nightmare and Janney is chillingly effective in the role. Via her spewing of obscenities at anyone around her and heaping mental, emotional and physical abuse on Tonya at home; she is the embodiment of embitterment and loathing, heaping her frustrations on her daughter under the guise of the most twisted sense of tough love to force Tonya to succeed as a skater.
In one scene, LaVona threateningly forces a younger Tonya to continue skating despite the child accidentally urinating in her skating dress. Rather than being a construct of a sensational creative license by the director, the scene has its roots in actual stories observed and told by real life spectators of Harding’s life at the time. Janney’s fearless embracement and presentation of such a joyless, cruel woman inflicting her own embitterment about life on her daughter is one of the year’s best performances.
Margot Robbie is equally a revelation in “I, Tonya”. As a result of her mother’s abuse, Tonya embraces her skating as a form of escape; and she quickly excels into an amazingly gifted skater in the competitive ranks who, for a time, succeeds as a result of her own sheer energy and talent.
The film’s depiction of Harding’s oft forgotten major accomplishment in figure skating history, the first landing by a woman of the difficult Triple Axel jump in competition – and fairly defeating Nancy Kerrigan by winning the 1991 US Figure Skating Championship – is one of “I, Tonya’s” brightest spots.
However, Harding’s scrappy athletic style, garish hand-made costumes and affinity for rock and heavy metal music in her skating routines, rather than the more acceptable classical music of the sport, puts her at odds with the figure skating establishment and its judges. In “I, Tonya”, Robbie convincingly presents a headstrong Tonya that hunts animals for food with her dad, chain smokes like her mom and refuses (or is unable) to truly fit into the elite, presentation-conscious skating world. Eventually, her skating routines begin to get lower scores than she deserves in a sport that prides itself on delicate Ice Princesses that make the sport seem effortless and pretty, rather than Harding’s more athletic style. It’s a foreshadowing of ill-conceived actions to come by those who feel Harding needs a bit of outside help against her fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan.
In the meantime, Tonya meets Jeff Gillooly, her first boyfriend and eventual husband, who proves to be every bit as abusive as her mother. Harding chooses to stay with Gillooly, giving the violence as good as she gets at times; because after all, as with her mother, Harding equates such abusive relationships with love.
Director Gillespie infuses “I, Tonya” with a risky mix of dark comedy, deadly serious dramatic moments and having its characters often breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience. Yet, somehow this, at times, “over the top” approach seems to work, especially when the film deals with the events surrounding the attack on Kerrigan and the unprecedented real life media circus that ensued at the time. This approach works to much less effect when the violent domestic abuse perpetrated on Harding is depicted.
Like Janney, Margot Robbie brings Tonya Harding to the screen with award worthy commitment to the role. Robbie inhabits Harding’s look, voice and demeanor in a way that’s truly astounding. Robbie also accomplishes something truly impressive by portraying a heretofore-unsympathetic character; and making many in the audience have a degree of empathy for Harding while not whitewashing her more unsympathetic character traits.
Kudos to Robbie for also doing a significant amount of her own skating in the film under the coaching of world famous skating choreographer Sarah Kawahara. While other skaters clearly do the difficult jumps and spins in Harding’s unique style, Robbie trained for six months with Kawahara to make her on-ice performance as effective as her off ice persona.
Gillespie presents a narrative that casts reasonable doubt on the depth of Harding’s actual involvement in the attack on Kerrigan. The cast of idiots that carry out the actual attack are presented in gloriously comedic fashion befitting a Coen Brothers film, and all the more incredible in that their real life ineptitude in carrying out the crime needs no Hollywood creative embellishment. A standout is actor Paul Walter Hauser, who nails Kerrigan attack planner Shawn Eckhardt to his real life buffoonish and delusional perfection.
Gillespie, more or less, leaves it up to the audience to decide where they stand on Harding’s possible involvement in the attack beforehand. However, Robbie nails one of the film’s most emotional moments when Harding, as punishment for later hindering the investigation into the Kerrigan attack, is banned from the sport for life. In this pivotal scene, Robbie’s Harding pleads for this cherished part of her life, her soul, her life-affirming talent to not be ripped away with a passion that is emotionally riveting in its presentation and performance.
Make no mistake, this is a film that will be as polarizing as it is fascinating, and on many levels, immensely entertaining to watch, thanks in large part to the performances of Margot Robbie and Allison Janney. It is polarizing in its intentionally sympathetic portrayal of an individual that many believe was involved, in some way, in a serious criminal assault against Nancy Kerrigan.
To this day, many, especially within the figure skating community, still loathe and detest Tonya Harding with an unbridled passion, even vociferously decrying throughout social media her mere presence at this film’s red carpet premiere recently in Los Angeles… not to mention the fact that this film was even made.
Others wholeheartedly believe Harding was victim to a cycle of domestic abuse that, at minimum, led to abysmally poor life choices, circumstances and foolish associations by the long disgraced skater. For them, Harding has more than paid the price publicly as a pariah and within the legal system for her past transgression as a young woman.
While “I, Tonya” may, or may not, change the public’s deep rooted opinion of Tonya Harding as an individual; it does successfully paint a deeper, more sympathetic portrait of her than the one-dimensional villain and punchline image that has metastasized within our pop culture consciousness over the past 23 years.
Perhaps more profoundly, one need only watch the film’s closing credits showing her 1991 Triple Axel winning championship performance to, even begrudgingly, acknowledge that Tonya Harding was not just a pariah and a punchline; but also, she was once an undeniably great and talented championship skater.
It’s not complete redemption; but, at least, it’s something.