I, Tonya? I had no interest. Grudgingly, I was dragged to the theater yesterday to see this bio-pic on ice-skating queen demon Tonya Harding. The best movie I’ve seen in a long time? Probably not. But the most wildly-entertaining film in a while, for sure, and surprisingly thought provoking.
Harding needs no introduction. I’ll provide one anyway. One of America’s best female figure skaters in the early 1990s, she was the first woman to attempt, and land, a triple axel in competition, which she does here to an exhilarating extended use of Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time,” with Rochester’s Lou Gramm on the vocals. However, you more likely remember Harding as a central figure in the plot to sideline her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, who was whacked on the knee by a then-unknown attacker, with the intention of clearing the path for Harding to win gold at the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics.
A too-familiar story. But the film’s exploitation of its other elements overcomes that problem. The acting is universally excellent, particularly Allison Janney as Harding’s excruciatingly harsh, bitterly hilarious stage mother, Lavona. Margot Robbie is also perfect as Harding, and unexpectedly so in the skating scenes. I was stunned by the camera work depicting Robbie on ice. Robbie can apparently skate some, and there were some stand-ins for her, but it wasn’t until reading the post-film credits that I realized that this was mostly computer-generated imagery; the list of people who worked the CGI magic is longer than that of the actors. CGI is usually a deal breaker for me, a guy who prefers to see his cities stomped to pieces by an anonymous stagehand in a giant lizard suit. But I didn’t even realize I was being fooled here. And I’m OK with it.
I, Tonya’s biggest success is in balancing the comic with the tragic. The plot to injure Kerrigan was doomed, because the henchmen who are recruited to do the deed by Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly (played with unpredictably wavering instability by Sebastian Stan) are such ridiculous boobs. When ex-con Shane Stant, hired to put the actual hit on Kerrigan, confronts a locked arena door while fleeing the scene of the crime, he uses his head to shatter the glass and get away. This isn’t artistic license, Stant actually did that. The filmmakers even show us how close to life I, Tonya’s actors nail it with a few brief clips during the closing credits of interviews with the real people. When Gillooly’s pal Shawn Eckhardt, who lives with his parents, improbably claims in the movie that he’s actually a Man of International Intrigue who works in counter-terrorism, we see the real Echkardt saying the same thing.
So I, Tonya had built-in elements of comedy. Yet it’s filled with cringe-inducing scenes of domestic violence – Gillooly is constantly hitting Harding, she’s painfully accurate with her return kicks to the crotch, and Lavona delivers devastating verbal and mental abuse. Go from laughs to shock at seeing a woman beaten is a tough thing to ask of an audience. The filmmakers want it both ways.
And they get it. How? Breaking the Fourth Wall. That’s when a character steps out of character looks into the camera and directly addresses the audience. The filmmakers point out that while I, Tonya is a true story, it draws from often-contradictory comments from the principals. So Harding turns to us and says Gillooly was increasingly abusive. Gillooly tells us, no, he didn’t hit her. What did Harding really know of the Kerrigan plot, and when she know it? The uncertainty is real.
And while we’re laughing at Harding’s white-trash antics, near the end of the film she tries – and perhaps succeeds – in turning the joke on us. With a class-warfare punchline. Her father shoots and skins rabbits to make his little girl a fur coat to wear to the junior competitions. “Why can’t it be just about the skating?” she asks a judge after scoring lower than she believed she deserved. It’s because Harding isn’t what the gymnastics association wants representing America, he says.
Yet gymnastics officials and the media are soon eagerly playing up the Olympic battle between the Princess Kerrigan and the Hardscrabble Harding. Until we are reminded that there were inconveniently other women in the Lillehammer figure skating competition that year; Harding finished eighth, Kerrigan second, with a look on her face when accepting her silver medal, Harding says, “like she stepped in dog poo.”
And then she looks straight into the camera again: We passed judgment on her as well, Harding reminds us.
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