Review: I, Tonya
If you’re old enough to remember the assault on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, you may have preconceived notions of Tonya Harding—mainly negative, more than likely. In there lies the drive of Craig Gillespie’s (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) I, Tonya, based on the life of Harding, played by Margot Robbie.
Tracing her life from a skating child protégé to adult superstar, earning worldwide fame and infamy, the film is told through flashbacks and mock tell-all, present-day interviews of the key players of the Kerrigan incident. Robbie, as a chain-smoking, middle-aged Harding, looks straight at the audience and accuses everyone of remembering it differently; a smash cut follows of Harding pummeling Kerrigan herself, her eyes maddeningly wide, her face covered in blood—a clear lie, yes, but who can you trust these days?
The film attempts to recontextualize how we see Tonya Harding; the film’s biggest flaw is how grandiose the telling is. Cribbing Martin Scorsese and his based-on-a-true-story films, I, Tonya’s big plot points feel amped up (‘Goodfellas on Ice’ would be one way of putting it), yet it’s all completely grounded by Harding, the character, thanks to Robbie’s performance.
Tragically, the youthful energy and passion she has for figure skating is drained away from her—she has a heartbreaking meltdown while applying makeup to impress the ringside judges, but her ultimate rock bottom comes when she delivers am impassioned plea during her court case later in the film. Ranging from in-your-face intensity to clear-eyed sincerity, Robbie gives the performance of her career, so far. I, Tonya is yet another indicator she’s on the list of most versatile actors working today.
Harding’s downfall is due in large part due to her abusive mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), and ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, (Sebastian Stan). She is berated and physically assaulted by her mother, all in an effort to make her a better athlete. This level of abuse continues once Harding meets Gillooly; they shout and scream at each other, and things get violent fast. But the two remain together, as he asserts himself into her skating career.
Abuse comes in all forms for Harding. Among the key players being mock-interviewed is a Hard Copy producer, played slimily by Bobby Cannavale. He gloats about toying with Harding once the scandal hit, saying he helped twist the knife all for ratings—Harding’s car would get towed each day, thanks to him, in order to get her out of the house for some newsreel footage.
The film pulls back and cements Harding as another victim in the wake of the Kerrigan attack. Prior to the fateful day, Gillooly enlists his friend and Harding’s bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, to ‘take out’ Kerrigan, a move that was out of Harding’s control—this plays into the film’s narrative of what’s real or not and whose story we should believe, but when everyone else in this tale is as crooked as they come, Harding feels like the only shining light.
Growing up from lower-than-middle-class roots, Harding has to continually prover herself to all those watching—her mother, her ex-husband, the media, and those judges on the ice rink. It’s another reason why the world who watched Harding’s downfall were quick to judge; affluence will get you a lot farther, as one figure skating judge puts it, in so many words. They’re looking for a more wholesome family figure, something that Harding isn’t, to which she says, “Suck my dick!”
I, Tonya plays with the truth and how we fabricate it. It’s evident in the film’s coda, as Harding questions what exactly we choose to believe. Like many biopics, I, Tonya elevates its lead into the realms of hero worship, which comes off as disingenuous. But the pillars holding up Harding remain honest—Robbie’s Harding becomes a symbol for the abused, the underprivileged, the desperate contender, and the warped American dream. She loses pretty much everything in the end, but she does so fighting. Serving as a big swinging, ‘fuck you’, I, Tonya is a fiery, engrossing tale of a true underdog, real or not.