Film Review: ‘I, Tonya’ is a character study that presents a different side of Tonya Harding’s infamous story

Courtesy of The Pop Break

There are always three sides to any story: Person A’s side, Person B’s and what actually happened. We rarely get the last one, so we have to settle for the other two and decide for ourselves what we believe is the truth. To that end, the film “I, Tonya,” which recounts the story of the disgraced American figure skater Tonya Harding, depicts Harding’s side of the story, and the result is a fascinating character study that explores the grey area between truth and lies.

For those unfamiliar with Harding’s infamy, she was a two-time Olympic figure skater who was banned for life from the U.S. Figure Skating Association after she pleaded guilty to hindering the prosecution of the people who planned the attack on Harding’s teammate and skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan, prior to the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. The film is structured somewhat like a true-crime documentary; through fictionalized “contradictory” and “unreliable” recreations of interviews with the players involved in Harding’s life and events leading up to the attack on Kerrigan, “I, Tonya” recounts Tonya’s childhood with her abusive mother, her relationship with her abusive husband, her skating career and what they refer to as “the incident.”

Ironically, this story about an American figure skater is brought to life by two Australians — director Craig Gillespie and star Margot Robbie, who produces the film as well. Many people know about Robbie’s talents from her roles in “Suicide Squad” or “The Wolf of Wall Street,” but I think her portrayal of Tonya Harding is a coming out party that catapults her into the conversation of best actresses working today. She disappears into this role, capturing this person’s lifetime from the age of 15 to her 40s, and while I don’t really buy her as a teenager, Robbie is still able to capture that familiar adolescent awkwardness and just as easily transform into the notorious figure we see Harding as today. She also proves her skills on the ice; Robbie trained several hours a week in the months leading up to filming, and many of the skating routines depicted on screen, with the exception of the more complicated twists and jumps, are done by Robbie. She is the soul of this movie, and I expect to hear her name announced when the Best Actress nominations are revealed this Tuesday.

Equally exceptional in her role is Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother, LaVona Golden. Her portrayal is, at times, terrifying as she verbally and physically abuses Tonya and degrades her skating abilities. She constantly reminds Tonya how hard she works to pay for her to skate, painting Tonya’s upbringing in a dark light. Sebastian Stan’s disconcerting performance as Jeff Gillooly, Tonya’s ex-husband, presents a character who plagues Tonya with a compulsive kind of abuse; Jeff doesn’t know how to live with or without Tonya, and resorts to violence to exert power over her. Stan’s role further informs Tonya’s downward spiral when he and his friend Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) create the plan to target Nancy Kerrigan, a plot that Tonya soon finds herself entrenched within. These supporting roles, especially through the interview segments, offer insights into who Tonya is, and why she is the way that she is.

As much as this is a story about Tonya Harding, it is also grounded by figure skating as a sport. Harding is known for many things, but during her professional skating career, she went down in history as the first American to land a “triple axel” in competition — a move that only six other women have been able to land. The skating sequences in “I, Tonya,” are beautifully choreographed, but the recreation of this moment is one of the most riveting parts of the film. Everything from the voice-over announcers to the camera’s following shots of Tonya picking up speed for the move ramps up the tension, and when she does land the jump, I exhaled sharply. The film then jumps to Tonya’s interview segment, where she smiles thinking back on it and says, “Nobody ever asks me about that.” Footage of the real Tonya Harding landing the triple axel is included at the very end of the film, and it becomes clear how exceptional the attention to detail was in making “I, Tonya.” From the costume to Robbie’s hair to the slight fist-pump she makes when she lands the jump, the film does a near beat-for-beat recreation of these sequences.

What I do take some issue with is the film’s tone. It plays primarily as a dark comedy, making light of the ridiculousness of Tonya’s life and her circumstances. While it does point out the idiocy of the people involved in Kerrigan’s attack — that this was not a plan created by a group of masterminds, but by a group of morons without a clue as to what the consequences for this action would be — it can also undercut the seriousness of these real-life events. At the end of the day, Kerrigan suffered a crippling injury that still ties her and Harding together in a negative set of circumstances that both must live with for the rest of their lives. When regarded as a fictional recount, the film does work within this genre, but when taking the reality of the situation into account, that aspect becomes more troubling. The other point of note here is that Nancy Kerrigan’s character (Caitlin Carver), for being such a central figure in this scandal, receives very little screen time outside of the actual “incident.” This, to me, cements this film as being Harding’s perspective more so than anything else, but I do wish the portrayal of Kerrigan was more prevalent in the story.

I’m not going to share my own personal opinions about Tonya Harding. That scandal took place two years before I was even born, so I have no authority to make judgements one way or the other. Based on the film, I will say that I found a great degree of empathy for the Tonya I saw on screen. The moment where Tonya, standing in a courtroom with the world’s eyes on her, is banned from figure skating is heartbreaking; “I, Tonya” spends the entirety of the film making its audience see that skating is Tonya’s life, the only thing she was ever truly good at, and when she receives her verdict, I felt the pain that Robbie conveyed. This film emotionally affected me more than I was expecting, offering a morally ambiguous character and a fascinating look into how dominant narratives within a story can have profound effects on those involved.

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