“I, Tonya” Movie Review


     It would seem the news media wrongly sensationalized a popular story in 1994, skewing the facts in order to make what actually happened sound better, thereby selling more papers and increasing ratings.  This is what you will come away believing after viewing director Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya”, a biopic on the infamous former member of the U.S. Figure Skating Team, Tonya Harding, and the up until now known culprit in the viscous attack on her fellow competition Nancy Kerrigan.  We all thought we knew the story.  Ask and most people likely believe it was Tonya Harding herself who smashed Kerrigan’s knee with a bat, but the film, written by Steven Rogers, debunks those theories while attempting to make sense of not only the events leading up to the incident, but also of Harding’s life, which was to say, a challenge.

     Lacing up the skates as Harding is Margot Robbie, who delivers one of those career defining performances that is certain to be recognized when Oscar nominations are announced next week.  But she is never expected to carry the film herself with standout performances by Allison Janney as her mother, LaVona Golden, as well as Sebastian Stan, who plays her on again off again husband at the time, Jeff Gillooly.  And while each actor flourishes with this material, it’s Rogers’ dialogue and Gillespie’s vision that ensures every scene plays well within the whole and gives the actor’s plenty of meaningful moments to shine.

     Janney establishes herself early on as a distastefully over the top chain smoking helicopter mom who insists her four year old daughter is good enough to be taken on at that age by coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), who reluctantly agrees, but is clearly taken aback by LaVona’s profane and often ugly disposition.  To an audience, this will illicit laughter, but to Tonya, none of this played out as a comedy.  Soon we see Tonya grow into a skater with world class potential, but we also see the physical and mental abuse she constantly absorbed from her mother.  And as teens ofter do, Tonya looked for an escape, which came in the form of her first boyfriend, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).  Being depicted at the age of 15, it was probably a little early in the film to have Robbie and Stan portraying their characters, but Gillespie moves on quickly to the point in which Tonya began to have national level success on the ice.

     During the middle act of the film, there is a lot of reference to the fact Tonya Harding was the only skater at the time who had successfully landed a triple axel jump in an international competition.  As is the case in a number of productions like this one, the production designers go to great lengths in recreating the details and atmosphere of important events in lives of the characters.  Everything from the costumes to the venues match up perfectly with actual footage shown during the end credits, giving a notable authenticity to the ice skating competitions that made Tonya a household name.  Of course, we also see her off the ice struggles against an overseeing body who doesn't think she fits the image they are looking for, and thus her scores are not reflective of the difficult stunts she is completing, nor is she getting the notoriety of her less talented peers.

     Making matters worse is her relationship with Gillooly, now her husband, and a physical abuser in his own right on par with her mother.  Given the incidents we see on screen, it seems a minor miracle that Tonya was able to maintain the focus she did in making two Olympic teams.  But beyond her accomplishments, she will always be remembered and directly associated with an incident of which it turns out she knew nothing about.  Whereas the onus was on Gillooly and one of his friends who he kept around as a sort of bodyguard for Tonya, the incident was carried out without her knowledge, and yet the news media saw an opportunity to paint a different picture.  One that would have an Olympic skater cast as the mastermind behind a conspiracy to take out her competition.  The whole thing sounded so plausible, that everyone bought into it.  Now all of us are certainly accountable for those we choose to hold company with, and I’m sure Tonya herself regrets staying with Gillooly and his associates for as long as she did, but it wasn’t like she had her mother to go to for advice, and her father was no longer in the picture at all.

     “I, Tonya” will leave you wondering just how high Tonya Harding’s star would’ve risen if she had the benefit of better support system.  It’s another sterling argument for the root cause of many of our country’s problems being the issue of class, rather than race.  Plenty of white people grow up poor too, and as a result are subject to some of the very same stereotypes that minority populations deal with each day as well.  The way Tonya was raised gave her a very noticeable hard edge that came out in the way she spoke to people, as well as her appearance when compared to her more wealthy competition.  All of this is plays out on screen with Robbie leading the way in what will most certainly be remembered as her signature role.  But more importantly, the film finally gets the facts straight after Tonya Harding was convicted in a court of public opinion whose information was being provided by a merciless and blood hungry media looking for something new to sell.  GRADE: B+