The best part about I, TONYA (2017) is it takes a story we all think we know— Tonya Harding and the “incident” with Nancy Kerrigan— and gives it depth and resonance, fleshing it out to the point where Harding is portrayed as a flawed sympathetic human being rather than just a stock villain and a punchline.
The script by Steven Rogers is exceptional. It breaks the fourth wall as characters address the camera at opportune moments, and it makes full use of an interview style where characters have their say about events, often contradicting each other, and makes a concerted effort to— no pun intended— hammer out the truth. In fact, truth is one of the central themes of the movie, which is exceedingly relevant today where basic truths and facts seem to be challenged every day, as things like “alternative facts” are rolled out by government leaders as if they are real and valid.
I, TONYA begins with Tonya Harding’s childhood. She’s skating on the ice when she’s just three years-old, pushed by her demanding mother LaVona (Allison Janney, in a performance that is every bit as good as advertised). We follow her as she grows up in poverty, a self-described “redneck,” and it’s as a teenager that Tonya (Margot Robbie) meets the man she will eventually marry, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).
It’s a tough life for Tonya. She’s constantly abused by her mother, both verbally and physically, as well as beaten by her husband, all the while thinking these actions towards her are her fault. And she snarkily says at one point that Nancy Kerrigan was hit once and the world cried, yet she was hit nonstop her whole life and no one cared.
She faces similar obstacles on the ice. She’s a phenomenal skater yet struggles to earn top scores from the judges, as they admit off the record that it’s not the skating but her persona. Americans want their Olympic skaters to represent family, their county, and wholesomeness, and with her crass rough demeanor, Tonya espouses none of these things. Tonya responds that if someone gave her the money to buy her clothes she’d at least look the part, but since she can’t afford the expected wardrobe she has to make her own.
And when Tonya receives a death threat that leaves her shaken and unable to perform, it gives her husband Jeff the idea that if they did the same to Nancy Kerrigan, send her some threatening letters, for instance, that it might shake her enough to give Tonya a competitive edge, a misguided plot that leads to the infamous “incident” where a man smashes Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.
Margot Robbie is sensational as Tonya Harding. It’s a spirited performance that has the desired effect of evoking sympathies for Harding. We really get to see the kind of life that Harding grew up in, making her successes on the ice all the more impressive. We also see, at least according to the movie, that she really didn’t know what her husband and friends were truly up to, that she believed all they were going to do was simply send some threatening letters.
And at the end, at her sentencing, you can’t help but feel the injustice as the judge imposes a lifetime ban on Tonya from the U.S. Figure Skating Association. As Harding points out, the men involved received short prison sentences, and she argues that she’d rather do prison time instead, but the judge is undeterred. As we learn, her husband Jeff received an 18 month sentence, but only served eight months. Tonya remains banned for life.
My favorite Margot Robbie performance remains Harley Quinn in SUICIDE SQUAD (2016) mainly because it was such an energetic and inspired performance that lifted that otherwise mediocre superhero movie to higher heights, but Robbie is every bit as good here as Tonya Harding.
The other impressive item about Robbie’s performance in I, TONYA is she did most of her own skating, as she trained extensively for the role. Of course, she couldn’t do Tonya Harding’s signature move, the triple axel jump, which only a handful of skaters have ever been able to do. In an interview, director Craig Gillespie explained that he learned there were only two skaters on the planet who could perform that stunt today and they were both training for the Olympics and were thus unavailable, so he had to resort to some CGI help to pull off the stunt in the film.
Sebastian Stan is also excellent as Tonya’s husband Jeff Gillooly. Like the other characters in the movie, he’s fleshed out and comes off as a real person. He’s a rather unlikable fellow, and yet he’s not a one-sided cardboard cliche, as we catch glimpses of his humanity, as with a later admission that he knows that he was responsible for ruining Harding’s career, and it’s something he says with profound sadness. Stan has been appearing in the Marvel superhero movies as Captain America’s troubled best buddy Bucky Barnes, aka Winter Soldier, and Stan’s work here in I, TONYA resonates much more than his work as Bucky.
Of course, the performance of the movie belongs to Allison Janney as Tonya’s mother LaVona. It’s as good as advertised, perhaps better, and she definitely lives up to all the hype her performance is generating. She makes LaVona absolutely relentless, from her first scene to her last. She is a complete monster of a mother, and she’s one character you won’t feel much sympathy for. But the amazing thing is in Janney’s hands this lack of sympathy doesn’t make LaVona any less real. She’s also absolutely hilarious, her vulgar remarks producing loud laughter from the audience. Janney has enjoyed a long and productive career. I most remember her for her longtime role as C.J. Cregg on the TV show THE WEST WING (1999-2006). Her role here is probably the best performance I’ve seen her give in a movie.
Paul Walter Hauser is hilarious as Jeff’s friend Shawn, the man who cluelessly orchestrates the plot against Nancy Kerrigan. Shawn lives in his own fantasy world, and the ease and confidence with which he believes his own lies, in all seriousness, frighteningly, reminded me of a certain President of the United States. The two sound eerily similar.
Julianne Nicholson adds respectability as Tonya’s longtime coach Diane Rawlinson, the one person in the movie who consistently seemed to care for Tonya’s well-being, and not surprisingly, was often the person Tonya listened to the least. And Bobby Cannavale is amusing as news host Martin Maddox, who through interviews, explains how the media of the time covered the story. He also gets one of the best lines in the movie, when he says his show HARD COPY was the exploitative news program that the respected news outlets of the time condemned and then later became.
Director Craig Gillespie gets nearly everything right here with I, TONYA. He takes full advantage of the chatty, conversational style of the script. The film is light and witty throughout, and the movie flies by, but make no mistake, in spite of the humor I, TONYA is no comedy. Sure, there’s laughter, but it’s from things people say, and the conviction and honesty with which they say them. But at its heart, I,TONYA is a sad, tragic story with no happy ending.
Gillespie also handles the skating scenes with relative ease which all look amazing and authentic. Gillespie’s success here comes as no surprise. I’ve been a fan of his relatively small body of work. He previously directed THE FINEST HOURS (2016), an underrated rescue drama starring Chris Pine and Casey Affleck about a 1952 Coast Guard rescue that sadly flew under the radar that year with little hype or fanfare. It’s an excellent movie. Gillespie also directed the remake of FRIGHT NIGHT (2011) which wasn’t half bad.
I, TONYA also has a rocking soundtrack which captures the period from Tonya’s teen years in the 80s to her competitive skating years in the early 90s.
I, TONYA tells a remarkable story in a way that enables its audience to understand the motivations of its principal players to the point where it’s not unusual for even the most despicable people to come off as sympathetic. That’s clearly the case with Tonya Harding, a person who was vilified by the press based upon actions that were clearly horrific, but yet here she’s portrayed as a real person with a horrific upbringing that makes her success on the ice all the more impressive. As to the “incident,” it still remains horrible, but how much of that horror was of Tonya Harding’s doing gets a fresh hard look in this movie.
On top of this, the film also tackles the broader theme of the truth, as multiple characters all have their version of the truth as to what really happened that day. The theme fits in perfectly with events of today, where truth is being attacked on a daily basis by those who feel completely comfortable with their own version of the truth, expressing little regard for those with opposing views, often labeling those folks as “enemies of the state.”
It’s an assault that is far more disturbing than the attack portrayed in this movie. In fact, you could make the argument that the attack on Nancy Kerrigan as portrayed in this movie is symbolic of what happens when people who make their own truths get carried away with their own fantasies.
People get hurt.