REVIEW: I, Tonya [2017]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 119 minutes
    Release Date: December 8th, 2017 (USA)
    Studio: Neon
    Director(s): Craig Gillespie
    Writer(s): Steven Rogers

I mean those bitches didn’t know what hit ’em.

You don’t get more American than 1994, a year when O.J. Simpson was arrested in conjunction with the brutal murder of his ex-wife and her friend just five months after Nancy Kerrigan made a stunning recovery to win silver at the Winter Olympics despite having her knee clubbed barely thirty days earlier. The twenty-four hour news cycle was in its infancy to the point that one could say this year cemented it as the tragedy-driven entertainment enterprise it has become today. I was only twelve and yet I vividly remember the non-stop coverage of both sports-related headlines because our nation clamored for front-row seats to witness icons fall from grace. While O.J. was one such “icon,” however, Kerrigan wasn’t. She was a victim of the Tonya Harding show.

Harding was the competition to Kerrigan’s all-American image and frankly I thought that’s all she was. I didn’t know about her backstory or struggles to get to where she was athletically. I didn’t know she was performing the same routines as everyone else with lower scores to show for it because the judges weren’t keen on a tempestuous redneck representing us on the world’s stage. To me she was just the idiot who asked her husband and bodyguard to incapacitate her rival even though they were both going to the Olympics anyway. How could you not laugh at that? Tonya was one step away from redeeming herself after a fourth place finish in 1992 and she risked everything to injure a single competitor of many? What an idiot.

That wasn’t the whole story, but no one cared because it was the more profitable anecdote needed by the media to sell advertisements and have viewers tune in. It made CBS a ton of money because they could bill figure skating as the must-see event of the tournament once it was known Kerrigan’s knee wasn’t as bad as initially thought. And as soon as the medals and verdicts were handed out, figure skating disappeared from public consciousness yet again. Simpson took over where Tonya left off and we forgot all about her until she re-surfaced as a female boxer in the early 2000s. But even then we didn’t treat her as more than a punch line. We didn’t ask about the truth because we believed what we remembered.

Here we are almost twenty-four years past the scream heard ’round the world and the “truth” is finally being given its day. I use quotation marks because screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie would probably be the first and second to tell you their film strives to be tongue-in-cheek specifically because every morsel of “truth” they tell is little more than conjecture on behalf of the infamous players involved. Their tale is based on interviews conducted with Harding (Margot Robbie), her mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and his best friend turned “bodyguard” Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser). They tell their sides, comment on discrepancies, and fill in the blanks that the salaciousness of everything had us ignore. Welcome to I, Tonya.

The format is a laugh riot because it rarely cares about what light is used to shine upon the insane circus at its center. That’s not to say they don’t give Harding the benefit of the doubt—nor that she doesn’t deserve it—but even she isn’t exempt from some targeted hijinks amongst the unyielding abuse rained down upon her by everyone she ever believed loved her. Sometimes the fourth wall is broken in-scene (an interesting choice considering Gillespie sprinkles in reenacted interviews to make it so this isn’t necessary) and we are provoked into laughter despite the horrible things happening onscreen. They allow the violence to be presented as “normal” because Harding explains how it was. It’s a “truth” that provides sympathy while also taking it away.

This is what gives the story its complexity. We are merely voyeurs experiencing memories shared by those involved. The film isn’t therefore trying to make us believe or revile her. It isn’t taking a subjective side at all because we already did that in 1994 ourselves. Gillespie’s intent is instead to present context for what happened, to portray the psychological damage wrought by her mother, the physical and emotional duress exacerbated by Jeff, and the realization that we as outsiders were no better than any of those who intentional sought to harm her. We wanted that witch-hunt. We wanted to see her burn for what we assumed she knew rather than rise from the ashes of what she didn’t. Sure it’s funny, but it was also someone’s life.

That word “life” is key because Tonya Harding is more than two months of infamy. The question is whether you are willing to let her back into the limelight as more than them. I won’t lie—I was chomping at the bit for the “incident” to arrive only to find it inhabits about thirty minutes of a two-hour film. This isn’t Harding Versus Kerrigan or Gillooly and Eckhardt Commit Crime. I, Tonya is a biopic that spans her memorable first meeting with coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) to her recollecting the chaos she endured to be the best forty years later. We’re here to acknowledge her mother’s unforgiveable nature and her own naiveté when it came to Jeff. But she’s still not absolved just because they’re the monsters.

Whether it was my anticipation of her career’s sordid end or not, the rest can become a bit drawn out and boring. It’s “fun” to watch Harding talk to us about the abuse by Mom and Jeff before swinging back, but the pattern set-up would be obvious with half the number of examples. For a good portion of the middle Tonya is actually the least interesting character of everyone because the plot turns to the farcical adventures of delusional Eckhardt (Hauser is a scenery-chewer in the best way) and frustrated straight-man Gillooly. Add the former’s “associates” and the entertainment arrives despite Harding’s hard work. For the most part she’s doing all she can to stay sane (albeit with an air of deliberate ignorance to what’s happening around her).

And while it’s great to hear Janney’s LaVona lament about the story forgetting her character for too long, the joke isn’t worth the reality that she’s correct. You will miss her cold attitude and profanity not because she disappears, but because she remains in view with mouth closed. But nothing could really be done if that’s what happened. Rogers is beholden to the truth in a way that forces a great performance to the background. So when Robbie’s Harding is pushed aside too, you feel yourself treading water and losing interest. Shawn and Jeff are a laugh, but they lack the three-dimensionality of the women. Thankfully Tonya inevitably takes the spotlight back so that Robbie can prove her strength as a formidable acting force once and for all.

[1] Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) in I, TONYA, courtesy of NEON
[2] LaVona Golden (Allison-Janney) and her pet bird in I, TONYA, courtesy of NEON
[3] Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) before competing at the Olympics in I, TONYA, courtesy of NEON

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