The infamous knee capping of figure skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver, "Paper Towns") proved the downfall of her scrappy, unconventional rival whose husband and bodyguard had coordinated the attack. Was she guilty? She was certainly condemned, but now she's back to tell her side of the story in "I, Tonya."
Having spent quite a bit of time in ice rinks, cheering on first a friend, then her figure skating daughter, I was quite the avid fan of the sport back in the day. But I went against the grain, hating skating judges for their obvious prejudices and rejection of the unconventional. I was a fan of Tonya Harding's from the start and when she skated at the Olympics and ended up in eighth place, I felt her performance had been misjudged, her inclusion with a scandal hanging over her head a cynical cash and ratings grab by a sport that would toss her out shortly thereafter. Now, along comes "I, Tonya," a film that dares to present conflicting points of view, writer Steven Rogers ("Stepmom," "Love the Coopers") interviewing both Harding and her ex Jeff Gillooly and melding their stories into one which doesn't exactly exonerate Harding but is sure to have many reconsidering the skater. Director Craig Gillespie ("Lars and the Real Girl," "Their Finest Hours") incorporates these interviews with present day direct camera addresses that include Harding's abusive stage mom LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) and her clueless 'bodyguard' Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) (the latter two are reconstructed from prior, televised interviews, LaVona's notoriously conducted with a parrot on her shoulder).
The story begins with the young Tonya (Mckenna Grace, TV's 'Designated Survivor') dealing with the trauma of her parents' divorce. Tonya loved her dad (Jason Davis, "The Accountant"), who'd taught her how to hunt (the rabbits' pelts would later fulfill the skating 'requirement' that Tonya have a fur jacket, the bunnies themselves a metaphor for the young girl), but was left with the bitter, manipulative LaVona who would refuse to let her daughter off the ice to use the bathroom and would beat her with a hairbrush.
LaVona clearly did see her daughter's talent, demanding Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson, "Noviate") take on her four year-old in an on ice confrontation with her ever present cigarette dangling from her mouth. But this mother's 'tough love,' spurring her daughter on with put downs and feigned disbelief in her abilities, is horrific to see in action (later, in a mind-blowing maternal betrayal, LaVona wears a wire, hoping to trip her daughter up for the media). When Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier") began beating Tonya a few months into their relationship, she felt that she deserved it. It was all she knew.
1991 was a pivotal year. The nineteen year old Harding became the first woman to land a triple axel in competition, winning the U.S. Nationals. She also married Gillooly, the only boyfriend she'd ever known. Growing up poor had toughened Tonya, who worked running a forklift and a drill press while training six hours a day, but her love of blue nail polish and heavy metal on the ice didn't fit in with the image the U.S. Figure Skating Association wished to project. When police arrive before one competitive event to warn Harding of a phoned in death threat, she's too rattled to perform. It gives Gillooly an idea and he and his wife discuss sending Kerrigan an anonymous, threatening letter to psych her out. Tonya claims this was her only involvement in any scheme, although she did admit to covering up the truth once she'd learned about it. This film's Gillooly confirms what she says.
We also hear it was Eckhardt who called in the death threat. Hauser is hilarious as the overweight loser with delusions of grandeur living in his parents' basement and it is his 'contacts' who ineptly carry out the Kerrigan hit. Harding's life would go from bad to worse, press hounding her night and day, her relationship with Gillooly becoming increasingly violent.
If at first Margot Robbie seemed unlikely casting, the deglammed actress, who learned how to skate for the role, quickly makes us forget. Robbie's Harding is a rebel, but her outer toughness hides deep hurt, just as her smoking coexists with (uncommented upon) asthma. In one incredible scene, Robbie makes up her face, exaggerated for the rink. She looks ghoulish, but practices a bright smile as tears stream down her face. Janney, a former figure skater herself, creates a jaw-droppingly awful LaVona. She's tailor made for a role that she lands without having to stretch. Nicholson is actually more the revelation, her skating coach the very face of every skating coach I've ever seen.
The film is a satire, which has led to accusations that the filmmakers are 'laughing at the rubes,' but as laid out here, it is difficult not to chuckle at behavior like smoking on the ice or the absurdity of Gillooly and Eckhardt's unimaginably dense plot. The screenplay rewards its cast with great lines ('When you come in fourth at the Olympics, you don't get an endorsement deal, you get the late shift at Spud's,' 'Nancy gets hit once, the whole world takes a shit.'). There are some wobbles, Robbie's 'jumps' relying on image blur, the media's role, as represented by Bobby Cannavale's Hard Copy journalist, in casting Kerrigan as princess and Harding villain, seemingly under nourished for run time, but Gillespie is generally sure footed and finishes strongly.
"I, Tonya" is not only a great American satire, but a revisionist take on an athlete that plays something like "Rocky" derailed by "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight."
Robin gives "I, Tonya" a B+.
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