Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Blue Collar, Red Neck, Pink Sequins

Film: I, Tonya
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.

If you were sentient and aware in 1994, you knew about Tonya Harding. Everyone knew about Tonya Harding. She was a punchline in every comedian’s stand-up routine, a topic of conversation around every water cooler. You couldn’t get away from her. That being the case, it’s almost surprising that it took nearly a quarter of a century for her story to reach the big screen. I, Tonya essentially admits at the beginning that it is rife with unreliable narrators. This is the story of the entire saga of Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan, the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, and a hell of a lot more coming from three different people, all of whom have good reason to lie and to implicate each other.

Of course, to tell the full story, we’re going to have to start at the beginning, with a young Tonya Harding (played as a young child by Maizie Smith, then Mckenna Grace as a pre-teen, and ultimately by Margot Robbie) becoming a viable figure skating competitor. We are introduced to her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney, who won the Oscar for Supporting Actress for this role). LaVona is a harsh woman who seems to be devoid of any real compassion or genuine emotion outside of contempt. She is most easily recognizable in the film by her ever-present cigarette (which honestly looks more like a cigarillo). What we learn is that despite her evident talent (Harding was the first American woman figure skater to successfully land a triple axel in competition), she never placed well in competition. Why? Image.

A great deal of I, Tonya, as I said above, needs to be taken with a grain of salt. We hear contradictory narratives from her and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Many of the events could be her telling the truth, him telling the truth, or somewhere in the middle. But for this part, I believe without question. Figure skating has always been the sort of sport that involved a high potential for fuckwittery and corruption. The 2002 Olympics, for instance, revealed a case of judges being bribed to favor one team of skaters over another. So to discover that Harding was given lower scores because of her costume and music choice is hardly a shock.

Anyway, Tonya fights this reality while dealing with constant physical, mental, and psychological abuse from her mother. Eventually, she meets Jeff Gillooly and evidently sees him as a sort of lifeline, marrying him almost immediately while continuing to work on her skating career. It won’t be a shock to learn that she claims this relationship was equally abusive (Gillooly denies this), and that she continued to struggle with scoring because of her blue collar image. When she came in fourth for a spot on the 1992 Olympic team, she essentially gave up on her goal and ended up as a waitress. Until the change in the Olympic scheduling, which gave her a last shot at going with the Lillehammer games.

And then there’s the incident, which was evidently “masterminded” by Gillooly’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who made some pretty ridiculous claims for himself and his skills. Essentially, the plan was to merely send Harding’s rival Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) death threats in an attempt to psych her out. This eventually became a physical attack on her, with Eckhardt hiring two men (played by Anthony Reynolds and Ricky Russert) to prevent her from competing by attacking her with a retractable baton.

Like I said up top, if you were conscious in 1994, you knew all about this. It was the news story of the year. What follows here is, essentially, what followed in reality, and I think for the first time, a lot of people finally got a look at what a clusterfuck it really was. Pretty much everyone involved (and especially Eckhardt) was monumentally incompetent and almost couldn’t help being caught.

It’s worth noting that there is something like a fourth narrator here. What is presumably the most honest and unbiased version of the story comes from a journalist named Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale), who is entirely fictional. That might be the most apt description of I, Tonya that exists: the clearest picture of what happened comes from a fictional character.

I, Tonya is filmed in a pseudo-documentary style that suits the subject matter perfectly. While much of what happens appears to us as a standard movie, there are fourth-wall breaks that make it evident it is sort of an imagined reality occurring during an interview. All of the main characters spend some time being interviewed by an unseen and unheard narrator. And again, since the three main characters seldom agree, it’s hard to know where the reality lies (although, since she has the least to lose at this point, I tend to believe Tonya’s story more than the others).

I’d love to say this is Margot Robbie’s film, but it’s not. This is not at all a knock on Robbie nor her performance, which is monumentally good. The truth is that there is not a weak link in this cast—they’re all fantastic. Allison Janney has rarely, if ever, been better, and I say this as a huge fan of Allison Janney. Robbie is naturally central, though, and there’s not a moment here where she isn’t believable as Harding.

I didn’t know what to expect with this, but it’s a hell of a good film. I’m glad I saw it.

Why to watch I, Tonya: It might be closer to the real story of what happened.
Why not to watch: Holy shit, these people are awful.


  1. "Holy shit, these people are awful." The older I get, the more this statement makes sense about so many people around the world, politicians, figure skating judges and Oscar voters included.

    1. Same. The older I get, the more hermit I become.

  2. Your reason is the thing that stuck out for me more than anything else about the film. These are dreadful people and though I was one of those people who talked about it around a water cooler back in the day it was impossible for me to feel any other emotion but contempt for anyone in the film. I'm not sorry I watched it but I can't imagine any circumstance that would draw me to it again.

    1. Well, it's a tabloid movie about a tabloid story. Everyone involved is an awful human being, the sort of person who would sell his or her mother (or, in LaVona's case, child) for $.89/pound.

  3. I was uneasy about "enjoying" a real life story which contains the stabbing of a competitor and controversially rewrites history by promoting Harding as a victim(could be why it missed out on a Best Picture nom). But if I'm honest, the movie managed to win me over, because it's so well paced, well acted, entertaining, and with a fun soundtrack. A guilty pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless.