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Review: I, Tonya (2017)

I, Tonya (2017)

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Premise: Based on true events. Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) trains for the Olympics. Her abusive husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) plots to intimidate the competition and the situation spirals into a media circus. 

What Works: I, Tonya is an entertaining farce. The movie retells the tabloid story of figure skater Tonya Harding and the way her husband and his bumbling associates conspired to kneecap rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in the lead up to the 1994 Winter Olympics. This is a ridiculous story and the filmmakers recognize that. They don’t try to concoct some kind of big cultural message or make the events more profound than they were. This is a terrifically weird story with colorful characters and the filmmakers take the right approach with the material, treating everything about it with an appropriate level of derision. And yet at the center of the movie is a fairly conciliatory portrait of Tonya Harding. As portrayed in this film, Harding was the daughter of a difficult mother, married to an abusive husband, and was treated unfairly by the figure skating establishment because of her poor white trash roots. Tonya Harding is played by Margot Robbie in a terrifically gauged performance. Robbie turns up the absurdity when necessary but she also finds the humanity in this woman and Harding is the human and tragic center of all the wackiness going on around her. The supporting cast is great as well, especially Sebastian Stan as Harding’s abusive husband Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn Eckhardt, Harding’s supposed bodyguard. Stan and Hauser are quite the comic team and they make these absurd events believable. I, Tonya possesses an energetic and irreverent style with the characters occasionally breaking the fourth wall or commenting in after-the-fact interviews. It gives the movie an unruly feel that suits the wacky subject matter.

What Doesn’t: I, Tonya sometimes feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch. That’s unavoidable because the characters and circumstances are so ridiculous. But the pitch that the filmmakers take occasionally feels cartoonish and that clashes with some of the film’s dramatic moments. I, Tonya clarifies a lot of what happened during this particular historical anecdote but one aspect that it doesn’t sufficiently explore is the way that the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan story captured the attention of the culture. This story was everywhere in 1994 but the filmmakers never quite captures that. In the long term the scandal was also, paradoxically, very good for figure skating; the Harding-Kerrigan story raised the profile of the sport and brought it a level of press attention that’s mostly remained intact. This is also left out of the movie which is surprising given the way this film suggests Harding was railroaded by the figure skating establishment for being detrimental to the sport.

Bottom Line: I, Tonya is a well-made and high energy retelling of the 1994 figure skating scandal. For viewers who remember this incident, the film clarifies what happened and resets our understanding of who Tonya Harding was and what she did—and did not—do. For everyone else it’s an irreverent good time and a well told story.

Episode: #682 (January 21, 2018)