I, Tonya - 2018
Director(s): Craig Gillespie
Writer(s): Steven Rogers
Cinematography by: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Editor(s): Tatiana S. Riegel
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson and Paul Walter Hauser
Synopsis: Follow the rise and fall of one of the most infamous competitive ice skater, Tonya Harding, and the supporting cast around the Nancy Kerrigan incident prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics.
There are very few names that transcend their sport or profession and are known throughout the pop culture, and Tonya Harding is definitely one of them. I had recently turned six when the news broke that Nancy Kerrigan had been attacked and that Harding was one of the main suspects. The news ate it up and it was everywhere from late night talk show monologues to your local morning news casts. The mystery behind the events was compelling enough for one of the most interesting and memorable ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, “The Price of Gold”. So, when a movie was announced, I was worried that the well had run dry. I was easily proven wrong.
Writer Steven Rogers based his screenplay on a series of interviews done with all the main players involved around Tonya Harding’s life. This lead to a script jam-packed with compelling points of views, since everyone has their versions of the “truth”. The biggest contradictions came from how Harding saw her upbringing versus how her mother saw it. Her mother isn’t a woman that you would call motherly, warm, or even nice. She thought that the only way to make a winner out of Harding was by putting her to the fire and smashing her like a piece of iron, hoping to get a sharp sword out of her. This way of looking at abuse as a price to pay for fame and glory is the biggest source of contention between them. Harding wanted a mother who loved her, but her mother just wanted her daughter to be the somebody she could never be.
Quick note: Mckenna Grace plays little Tonya during the beginning and she was phenomenal. She had me choking up as she was begging her dad not to leave her with her mom.
This movie is a carried by two incredible performances: Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding and Allison Janney as LaVona Golden. Robbie managed to both capture the recklessness joy of Harding in the ice and her self-doubt outside of the ice. There are multiple scenes where she flexes her acting range far greater than she has before, and the one being used to market the movie is the best one of all. She is sitting in front of the mirror trying to put on her makeup, fighting back the tears and smiling away her pain and anger. It’s one of the moments that stick with you after you leave the theater. As for Janney, she manages to be one of the funniest and most deplorable characters of the entire movie. She is a straight-shooting person full of anger and self-deprecation and isn’t wasting a single second in making Harding and the people around her just as unhappy as she feels. The rest of the cast is solid and it was nice to see Sebastian Stan branching outside of his Winter Soldier role in the Marvel universe.
Quick note: I really enjoyed how they filmed the ice skating sequences. It was very reminiscent of the way Black Swan filmed their ballet sequences, putting the camera up close to the subject following the dance number in a way that made it more dynamic and entertaining. They could’ve copped out and showed the ice skating from afar as if we were in the audience instead of with her, but, they didn’t and the movie is better for it.
My biggest qualm - and this could be a “me problem” since my wife didn’t feel the same way - comes from how director Craig Gillespie handled the dark humor. I’m a huge fan of dark comedies and his 2007 movie Lars and the Real Girl, but I don’t know if this subject matter needed a dark humor tone. The mother being abusive at the beginning was funny, and since it’s not so violent and graphic, the tone worked there, but when we are shown Robbie’s head smashed against a mirror by Stan for only to her to look at the camera and say, “he didn’t need an excuse to beat me,” I found myself asking, what is the message of the movie? I wanted to feel sorry for her as it’s really a messed-up relationship and is something that informs both their characters and actions, but, I felt the movie wanted me to laugh at it and at the same time feel sorry for her. This tonal conflict drew me out of the movie and didn’t allow me to fully connect with the story and the characters.
I, Tonya is a great character study elevated by a solid script and two powerhouse performances. Despite having problems with the tonal shifts, I enjoyed the overall product. Margo Robbie gave one of her best performances and Allison Janney delivered another stellar performance in a long and illustrious career. Their performances are why I love movies.
I, Tonya is currently playing in theaters. It’s worth a watch.
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