The darkly comedic and (semi) true accounts of disgraced Olympic figure skater, Tonya Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, who were blamed for a vicious attack on Harding’s fellow teammate, Nancy Kerrigan.
Before jumping on the ice with Tonya, I want to talk about one of my favorite fantasy books: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
There is a scene where the protagonist, Kvothe, a red haired, lute-strutting student at a magical university, visits a local tavern, where he must play his instrument in front of a crowd in order to win a set of golden harps. During this scene, Rothfuss does an amazing job of getting the reader to care so much about whether or not Kvothe will win his harps that when Kvothe’s lute string snaps mid-song, I literally gasped aloud. I knew then that the book would wind up being one of my favorites, because Rothfuss had gotten me to care, incredibly deeply, about something I otherwise wouldn’t.
This movie does for figure skating what Name of the Wind did for lute strumming.
I couldn’t give a fiddler’s fart about sports, and honestly I think most sports movies are derivative and boring. I know next to nothing about figure skating, nor do I intend to go out of my way to learn. But the style that this movie was told with, and the craft with which Tonya’s performances were executed really worked in this films advantage. I was at the edge of my seat. I wanted her, so badly, to win. I held my breath when she went for her famed triple axel and wanted to cheer when she landed. What’s more, the film made me feel as if I wanted victory with her- as opposed to for her. It felt, at times during the film, that we were right there on the ice with her, skating backwards, performing in front of thousands. The movie sheds new light on the Kerrigan/Harding scandal, one that paints Harding in a very misunderstood light.
But let's start at the beginning, shall we?
“I, Tonya” opens with the set up of a string of faux interviews with Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie, “Mary Queen of Scots”), ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, “Captain America: Civil War”), Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney, "The Way Way Back”), ex bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser, forthcoming “BlacKkKlansman”), coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson, “August: Osage County”) and gossip rag editor Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale, "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”).
Right away, a title card informs us that some of the testimonies contradict others. Indeed, even in the trailer Harding declares: “There’s no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth.” This is a very postmodern statement, but it’s a statement that, in our political climate, seems to be truer every day(thank you, Kellyanne Conway for introducing “alternative facts”). While the skeleton of the story is true and the major aspects of it undisputedly happened, the meat of this story must be taken with a grain of salt (maybe even a healthy handful of salt). Yet while the validity of the story might be questioned, it succeeds in being incredibly entertaining and providing plenty of insight into what the players claim happened.
From the age of three Tonya was on the ice with Diane Rawlinson, while LaVona, Tonya's mother, looked on from the side, sipping brandy-spiked coffee and muttering profanity-ridden insults at anyone who had the audacity to talk to her. LaVona was an abusive mother; physically and mentally tormenting her child every chance she got. But LaVona doesn’t look at her actions as abuse. She believes the torment will push Tonya to become great. She hits Tonya repeatedly with a hairbrush in the ice rink locker room, kicks her out of chairs, and constantly berates her for her form, and perpetually blames Tonya for their money problems. LaVona’s behavior weighs on Tonya’s father, forcing him to leave her while Tonya is still quite young. McKenna Grace (forthcoming “Ready Player One”) gives a notable performance as young Tonya. The scene in which Tonya’s father leaves her standing sobbing in the street is utterly heartbreaking.
Cut to Tonya at the age of fifteen, now played by a braces-wearing, frizzy-haired Margot Robbie. No, Margot Robbie does not at all look like she is fifteen, nor does Sebastian Stan, playing Jeff Gillooly, the boy lurking round the rink, sheepishly watching her skate. Expecting us to believe they are so young is a little ridiculous, but with a little suspension of disbelief, it helps to play into the humor of the film. Tonya and Jeff start dating (LaVona chauffeurs their first date), they have their awkward first kiss, and things progress from there… But then things start to get rough. Gillooly hits her, throws her into mirrors, screams at her. He is always quick to apologize, and Harding always takes him back. They marry, but after three years, they divorce. Jeff never really gets over Tonya, and he sticks around throughout the film, despite Tonya getting a restraining order, then (maybe) rescinding it, and then breaking it off with him again. There is quite a bit of domestic violence in this film. Harding endures abuse from both Gillooly and from LaVona throughout the film. Those who are sensitive to this type of material might want to take that into consideration before viewing.
(MAJOR SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH)
I won’t go through how Tonya gets here, but those who are familiar with Harding’s story know her primarily for one thing: the Nancy Kerrigan incident. Harding was not performing as well as Kerrigan; consistently scoring lower than her, even though Harding was the first woman in the world to land a triple axel in competition. Gillooly informs Harding that he plans to send death threats to Kerrigan to scare her out of skating. Harding raises no objections, and Gillooly enlists the help of his hilariously neandrathalic best friend, Shawn Eckhart. Shawn enlists the help of two thugs, Derrick Smith and Shane Stant, whom he instructs to bash Kerrigan’s knee with a collapsible baton. Stant, fumbling nervously through the corridors of the Cobo Arena, a Detroit ice rink, on January 6th, 1994 became the perpetrator of the actual dirty work. Harding still maintains, to this day, that she did not know violence would be used to incapacitate Kerrigan.
(END OF SPOILERS)
Allison Janney has generated plenty of early Oscar buzz for her portrayal of LaVona, and she deserves all of it. She’s a wonderfully despicable person- one that you love to hate. Janney makes you believe that LaVona believes she is doing the right thing. She justifies it to herself: “I made you a champion, knowing you’d hate me for it,” she spits at Harding in one scene. She’s a viciously strong willed woman; horrible, but incredible to watch. Paul Walter Hauser gave another stand out performance; he was consistently hysterical. I hadn’t heard anything at all about him before this movie, but I’m sure he’ll be getting a lot more work after seeing him in this. Margot Robbie and Sebastian Stan both do fine jobs. I wouldn’t mind seeing Robbie get a nomination, but I don’t think she should win this year. (Though nominations have another week before they are even announced, my money is on Saoirse Ronan for “Lady Bird”)
The cinematography during the competitions was really well executed, and I enjoyed that the interviews were in a different aspect ratio than the narrative. There were a few other scenes with interesting shots, particularly when Harding divorces Gillooly, where the film shows a passage of time in a single shot. Gillespie and cinematographer Karakatsanis weren’t afraid to try to push for something a little different, and I believe it paid off.
One of the recurring themes of this film is America and the American Dream. Harding is competing for and representing our country, a few times judges make remarks about how they wouldn’t want someone with an appearance like her to stand for the US. But Harding keeps fighting, she always jumps back up on her feet, she’s determined to win, even if to win she has to do something a little outside the rules; and really, is there anything more American than that?
After discussing with a few buddies, I was surprised to find that a couple of them really did not like the breaking of the fourth wall. I, personally, had no problem with it, but some viewers might not enjoy the semi-schizophrenic storytelling. To me, it felt like there was a dash of Scorsese a la “Wolf of Wall Street”; another semi-true, larger than life biopic also starring Margot Robbie. Though, of course, not as well executed as Scorsese’s drug-fueled greed-fest, this film is chaotically pieced together in a way that blends traditional narration with more unusual approaches to storytelling. Some scenes work better than others- the movie isn’t perfect- but it’s pretty darn good.
The story begins to slow down towards the end. The ‘incident’ happens- by my estimate- a little over halfway through the film, the fallout takes up the remainder of the time. While the fallout is humorous and it’s interesting to watch the characters scramble, the bit that we all came for has already happened, and towards the end, I found myself wondering how far into Tonya’s post-skater life we’d go. I wasn’t ever bored, but the pacing-loll is noticeable.
This is a solid film. Everyone here gives commendable performances. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Janney takes home that gold (the academy loves bad mothers- most recently Mo’Nique in 2010 for “Precious” and Melissa Leo in 2011 for “The Fighter”, and I’d be happy to see Robbie nab a nom. For people looking for the truth about what happened in 1994, you might find some answers here. Maybe the truth was here, but maybe not. As Tonya told us at the beginning: “Everyone has their own truth.” This is the truth she’s given us; take it at face value.
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