I, Tonya

i_tonyaSTARS3.5Anyone born before 1990 should remember when figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was clubbed on the knee by an assailant. The Tonya, of the title, was Tonya Harding, of course – Kerrigan’s rival and Olympic teammate. The 1994 scandal and their subsequent showdown at the Olympics that took place one month later was a defining moment in American TV.  It’s easily the most attention that a women’s figure skating event has ever received either before or since. The details, however, have sort of gotten lost in murky recollections of the past. I’ve encountered some who incorrectly think Tonya Harding was actually the one who hit Nancy Kerrigan. That would’ve made Tonya’s ensuing participation in the 1994 Winter Olympics even more unbelievable. Before all that though, people forget that at one point, Tonya was a darn good athlete winning gold medals at the international competition Skate America in 1989 and 1991. This reminds us of the champion she once was but through a dark comedic filter.

The Nancy Kerrigan attack is why Tonya Harding’s name still persists in the public consciousness. That event is ostensibly why the average viewer might come to see this movie. Midway through, the script even acknowledges the fact. Tanya screams directly at the audience, “I mean it’s what you all came here folks, the f—–ing incident!” However, the drama begins much earlier in her life as a 4-year-old working with a professional coach. In that sense, the film is more of a biography.  This is, in essence, an argument to explain why Tonya Harding was the way she was.

The presentation involves an overly theatrical tone and comical atmosphere. We’re told at the outset that this “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews…” This is Harding’s side of the story filtered through mockumentary-style conversations. These include herself (Margot Robbie) and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), but also her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney), skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and others. Robbie puts forth a performance you simply cannot ignore.  The slimmer, significantly taller actress looks virtually nothing like the actual person, although I can’t help but think Tonya didn’t have a problem with the casting choice.  The figure skater comes across as a crude, foul-mouthed woman who also happened to be incredibly talented.

The exhibition is far more sympathetic to its subject than expected. It cultivates a world in which Tonya was surrounded by less than savory characters. The account maintains she was beset by people who physically and mentally abused her. It recounts key relationships in her life including a volatile relationship with her mother. Actress Allison Janney seizes your attention. It’s not a pleasant portrayal but it is memorable. The developing romance with an explosive Jeff Gillooly is also detailed. It’s shown that his association with buddy Shawn Eckardt, who became Tonya Harding’s bodyguard, would have detrimental effects on her career. The abuse, both verbal and concrete, that occurs on screen would normally be grounds for prison time but here they’re offered as macabre humor. Her “sweetheart” and mom do not come off well. Both are depicted as horrible people. Jeff at least seems to have her best interests at heart, but LaVona, being a parent from which we assume love, comes across as particularly wicked. Tonya is conspicuously beaten, shot at, stabbed and verbally degraded. Given the seriousness of what she endured, the campy style can be off-putting.

I Tonya relies heavily on music to uplift its heroine. At the 1986 Skate America in Portland, Maine, we see a fellow competitor skate a graceful classical routine to “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi. Then Harding takes the ice and performs a flawless, much more athletic set, to “Sleeping Bag” by rock band ZZ Top. The message is clear. She is a talented badass that doesn’t follow the rules. Her lower than expected scores frustrate her and she berates the judges. We’re invited to side with her given the apparent difficulty of her achievement. We don’t just hear music in competitions though. Musical selections underscore everything that’s occurring on screen. They are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose at times. Tonya Harding’s mother is introduced to the song “Devil Woman” by Cliff Richard. ::eye roll:: Supertramp’s “Goodbye Stranger” is played at the announcement of divorce proceedings from her husband. “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is for sad times. “Every 1’s a Winner,” “Feels Like the First Time” and “Little Girl Bad” underscore her fierce competitive spirit.

The truth is stranger than fiction. The genuine facts are so compelling that it would be almost impossible to make a movie out of these developments and not have it at least be interesting. I, Tonya is compellingly watchable, although the tone doesn’t serve the subject as it should.  The production revels in the climate of a poor working-class white girl living in Portland Oregon. It’s unglamorous, at times shocking, but presented as comedy. Not humor as enjoyably hilarious kind, but dark comedy that makes light of a very dire situation. I was more saddened by the negative circumstances in her life than able to laugh at the irreverence of it all. It’s not uncommon for characters to break the 4th wall and speak directly to the audience, even in the midst of being assaulted. Back in 1995, Buck Henry’s screenplay for the Gus Van Sant directed To Die For, made light of the depressing real-life story of convicted criminal Pamela Smart. The matters of I, Tonya don’t involve murder, but her upbringing is bad enough that you marvel at the fact that Tonya is still alive. Through it all, the chronicle always makes sure to let us know what a great skater she was. She was the first woman to successfully execute two triple Axels in a single competition, and the first to complete a triple Axel in combination with a double toe loop. I came away from the film feeling much more sorry for Tonya Harding than I was anticipating. Honestly, I didn’t have much sympathy for her before this. Now I do. In that sense, the memoir is completely unpredictable. I was changed by the experience.

11-23-17

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8 Responses to “I, Tonya”

  1. Interesting view re: the film being presented as a dark comedy when its based on real, horrible events. Thank you for the review, definitely can’t wait until I can watch it myself!

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  2. Eric Robert Wilkinson Says:

    I was 11 at the time of “the incident” and remember not just the incident but also its bleeding over into pop culture from SEINFELD to pro wrestling (namely, Hulk Hogan’s venture into villainy in WCW! even Weird Al’s “Headline News” song which featured this, the boy in Singapore who was caned, Lorena Bobbitt’s … unique marital punishment, all to the tune of Crash Test Dummies’ “Mmm mmm mmm mmm”) … I’m really looking forward to this film

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  3. Eric Robert Wilkinson Says:

    Fun fact: my co-worker’s husband’s cousin is Jeff Gilloully

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  4. Darn it, I never thought I would kinda feel sorry for Tonya, but I did. Just a little. Kinda a campy , but fun. There will definitely be some acting nominations for Allison and Margot. 3 1/2 stars.

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