Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers
I, Tonya has a well-chosen title. It evokes a phrase that one might hear in a court of law when a statement is given (“I, Tonya, do solemnly swear…”). It suggests a declaration that the testimony we are about to hear shall be given in the named party’s own words and will be the truth as they understand it. That right there is pretty much the premise of this movie. It is a construction of the major events in Tonya Harding’s life based on a series of contradictory, self-serving, irony-free interviews conducted with herself, her ex-husband, her mother, her trainer, and her bodyguard. Somewhere between their varying accounts, the film suggests, is the truth behind the ‘incident’ that ruined Harding’s career and reputation but the film is less interested in learning what that truth is than it is in giving each key player a chance to tell their version of the story and allowing the audience to draw its own conclusion.
We meet Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a young girl (played by McKenna Grace) who is compelled to ice skate by her abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney). As she grows, she is trained exclusively by her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) and is poised to pursue a career as a competitive figure skater. As a young woman she meets and falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and, much to her mother’s disapproval, marries him. Tonya comes to regret her elopement as the marriage soon becomes abusive. It isn’t long before Tonya distinguishes herself as a professional skater, becoming the first American woman to complete the triple axel jump in competition, but finds that the judges disapprove of her ‘white-trash’ persona. After a humiliating loss at the 1992 Olympics, Tonya prepares to give it one more shot at the 1994 games. This leads to the so-called ‘incident’ where Tonya’s main rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) suffers an attack organised by Jeff and his friend, Tonya’s incompetent bodyguard Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser).
Gillespie has managed to capture this very particular tone with I, Tonya that could very easily have backfired, one that is able to accommodate both dark comedy and profound earnestness without seeming inconsistent. He allows these characters to speak about what happened in their own words, cutting between dramatic re-enactments and footage of the interviews (albeit, recreated with the actors in their place) and manages to be funny and serious in all the right places. There is a lot of mocking, so much so the film almost borders on parody, as the movie takes shots at the ostentatious, superficial standards of competitive figure skating, the incompetence of those who take part in the ‘incident’, and the fashion and culture of the early 90s. Yet, when the film wants us to feel sympathetic for Tonya, for her difficult upbringing and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, for the uphill battle she had to fight to be taken seriously as a professional sportswoman, and for the way the press and the world at large turned so antagonistically against her without knowing the full story behind the ‘incident’, it does so with complete sincerity.
Robbie is a force of nature as Tonya. She plays the role with the grit and attitude of a scrapper who has had to fight for everything in her life and has had obstacles thrown at her at every step of it. She has the confidence of a champion who is the best at what she does and is at the top of her game and the steeliness of someone who learnt at too young an age that she would need a thick skin to make it. Beneath all that is a buried layer of wretchedness and self-hatred that comes from the years of physical and emotional abuse she has suffered. Matching her blow for blow is Janney as Tonya’s curt, ruthless mother who decided long ago that her daughter would be a champion and is prepared to push her there even if it kills her. She is constantly insulting her daughter (as well as anyone foolish enough to cross her) and manipulating her to get her into the right competitive mindset. The character is a little one-note, but when that note is being played by a pro like Janney that’s alright by me. The comic highlight for me though was Hauser as Eckhart, a man so impossibly delusional that I refused to believe he was a real person until they showed his actual interview over the credits.
One of the interesting things the film reveals about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan is how little Nancy herself had to do with any of it. She barely features as a character in this story and, once the whole ‘incident’ starts to take shape, it becomes clear that she was neither the first, second, third, nor the twentieth reason why the attack actually happened. There were other factors at work, some spontaneous and some years in the making, that led up to this moment. There was the pressure that Tonya felt to become a champion in a sport that was biased against her. There’s the impulsive nature of her husband, his emotional hold over her, and his tendency to solve his problems through aggressive means. There’s the truly inspired stupidity of Eckhart and the goons he hires and their extraordinary ability to screw up their tasks to such a remarkable degree that even Mr. Bean would blush with shame. There’s the way that the press and public, hungry for a sensational story, tried to pit the working-class, uneducated, trailer park girl from Oregon against her pristine, princess-like adversary in a rivalry that neither competitor really felt. The movie does such a good job of bringing all of these different elements together, it is able to make the eventual result feel somehow unpredictable yet inevitable.
I, Tonya is also a wonderfully structured film that is constantly jumping between timelines, changing perspectives, and cutting to talking head pieces without slowing down. There are quirky transitions, fourth-wall breaks, and narrative-stopping digressions, kind of like The Big Short, but the movie never feels like it’s being gimmicky for the sake of being gimmicky. All of these devices play into the idea that this a story being told in the words of those who were involved. In one scene Jeff is describing an incident where Tonya chased him out of their house with a shotgun, an incident that plays out in front of us only for Tonya to pause halfway and say to the camera that this never actually happened. In another the movie takes a moment to take explain to us exactly how the triple axel jump works and why it’s such a big deal, then it allows us to appreciate the moment that Tonya actually performs it in slow-motion. The ice-skating scenes are quite riveting to watch, largely due to the film’s decision to cast a professional skater to perform the challenging routines and pasting Robbie’s face over hers. This means the movie never has to resort to distracting editing or camera tricks in order to compensate for the actress’ limited skills. We get to see these feats performed in clear, unbroken shots.
You wouldn’t think that a movie like this could be that emotionally effective, but by hearing Harding out and depicting her story in her own words without irony, without judgement, and without hostility, the movie was able to bring everything together into a sympathetic portrait of a woman who has suffered her own share of injustices. What we see may or may not be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but that’s not really the point. The movie is really about things like competition, class, abuse, sensationalism, and scandal. It’s about a woman who had the odds stacked against her because she came from the wrong background and was unfairly maligned and cast as the villain in the story that unfolded, not because she was guilty or culpable it what happened, but because that’s what the people wanted her to be. Here you see what the whole affair was like from Tonya’s perspective and in the end when she bursts into tears upon being banned from professional skating, it’s as heartbreaking a moment as you’ll see in any other sports movie.