If you didn’t know in advance that almost everything you’ll see in I, Tonya was true, you’d think you were watching a poker-faced, fictional Coen brothers account of a bunch of redneck yahoos involved in the world of ice-skating. As presented by the media around the globe, Tonya Harding was the skater the world loved to hate. Booing her at later events became a sport in and of itself. But there’s something about this hugely entertaining biographical sports comedy/drama that might change your mind. It won’t be a complete turnaround, but at least you should feel sympathy.
Presented as a faux documentary where all involved in ‘The Incident’ talk directly to the camera, what you think might be outrageously exaggerated interviews for the sake of laughs is dispelled by what you’ll see during the end credits. The image is amusing when Tonya’s horrendous mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) is seen with her short, pudding-style haircut, and her consistently sour disposition, staring at the camera through large, owl-like framed glasses. And it’s funny enough observing a parrot perched on her shoulder, pecking at her ear at every opportunity. But you’ll see the real thing at the end, and you won’t believe how accurate is the portrayal.
When playing a reporter for TV’s Hard Copy, Bobby Cannavale introduces himself by explaining that his now defunct tabloid news program was the show that most other news shows looked down upon, adding, “And then… became.” It’s a funny line, and it gets laughs, but there’s truth to the statement. It’s those kind of observances and irony free, funny but honest reflections said by all that work throughout the film. You have to hear it to believe it, and you won’t believe what you hear. When during an argument, LaVona throws a steak knife at her daughter and it sticks in the girl’s arm resulting with blood running down to her wrist, the mother doesn’t deny that it happened. Instead states to the camera, “Oh, please. Show me a family that doesn’t have its ups and downs.”
Between the interviews is the story of Tonya herself. It begins with her first steps on the ice at the age of 3, winning her first competition at 4 – “Those bitches didn’t know what happened,” narrates the adult Tonya (Margot Robbie) – and continuing with her adult life right up until the moment when her career was severely stripped away.
What comes as a surprise is just how great an ice-skater Tonya Harding was. Of course, it shouldn’t come as a surprise at all – she was, after all, an Olympian – it’s just that after witnessing her redneck upbringing (her words), the stumbling blocks of the idiots around her, the violent abuse of her husband, and the tough-love (without the love) from her monster of a mother, it’s a wonder Tonya achieved anything of note. The scenes of her ice-skating abilities are simply superb. Though Robbie took lessons for the film, watching her Tonya compete for the world championship, her twists and turns, and especially the triple axel jump, suspends disbelief. The images have to be computer generated, but you’d never know it; you believe you’re watching Robbie herself.
But when it comes to individual occurrences in the telling, you’re not always sure that what you’re watching is the reality. They’re versions of events as seen by one person, then contradicted by a quote from another. When Tonya tells of how her husband, the thick-as-a-brick Jeff Gilooly (Sebastian Stan) repeatedly smacked her in the face, he’ll state to the camera, “I never hit her.” But then we’ll see another argument between the two, as related by Jeff, that shows Tonya chasing her husband out of the house with a shot gun, then firing. Tonya turns to the camera and states, “I never did this.” The truth is, of course, he really did hit her, often severely, and that’s no laughing matter. Ever. “I’m supportive of this relationship,” Tonya’s mother declares.
Director Craig Gillespie makes great use of music throughout. It’s not just a case of a pop/rock song representing a time of year, it’s how either the title or the lyrics reflect the scene, often with an irony that’s laugh-out-loud funny. When Cliff Richard’s Devil Woman plays, it’s our introduction to Tonya’s foul-mouthed, objectionable-in-every-way, mother. Dire Straits’ romantic Romeo & Juliet supports the courtship of Tonya and husband-to-be Jeff as they passionately kiss, then later when Jeff beats her between bouts of sex. And when Tonya strength-trains with the steely determination of a Marine at boot camp, running through the woods with a heavy bag of powdered cement over her shoulders, Heart’s Barracuda blasts over the speakers. As Tonya runs by her trainer, the likable Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) turns directly to the camera and tells us, “She actually did this.”
But it’s the truth behind what’s referred to as ‘The Incident’ that you’re waiting for, and despite the serious nature of what occurred to rival skater, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlan Carver), as presented, the whole affair is a farcical hoot of epic proportions. What began as a mysterious threatening letter sent to Tonya develops into an outrageous and debilitating attack on Kerrigan’s right knee. The totally bonkers bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) was given the approval by Tonya’s idiot husband, Jeff, to send a series of mysterious threatening letters to Kerrigan as a form of retaliation. Instead, Eckhardt hires two doofuses to track Kerrigan’s whereabouts. One of them, Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) enters Cobo Arena in Detroit and strikes the skater in the leg with a telescopic baton. As Cannavale’s Hard Copy reporter relates, “The act was committed by two of the biggest boobs in a story full of boobs.”
When the event is reported on CNN, bodyguard Eckhardt is not only proud of his work, he’s invigorated by it. His only annoyance is that his parents recorded the CNN report on a video tape that wiped out his favorite episodes of Star Trek. Later, after his arrest, he’ll boast in a taped interview for TV about his being an expert covert operator in world of international espionage. And in case you’re thinking he couldn’t really be that stupid, and maybe writer Steven Rogers had now pushed the plausibility level too far, stay for the end credits; you’ll see the real interviewer. He actually said that.
Sadly, while the victim of the attack in the literal sense was Nancy Kerrigan, so, too, was Tonya Harding. She was not involved in any of the planning, and she had no knowledge of her bodyguard’s intentions. Like everyone else, she saw it on the news. But her association with those who did plan and execute the attack implicated her involvement, aided by a barrage of negative publicity from the world’s press that gleefully demonized her, and wouldn’t quit. “I thought being famous was going to be fun,” she states.
In the light of what we discover, the fines imposed and the order for her to never ice skate in any capacity ever again comes across as excessively harsh. Robbie’s tearful speech to the judge telling him that she can’t do anything else but skate is genuinely heartfelt. If you hadn’t noticed it before, you will here; this woman can act.
MPAA rating: R Length: 120 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)