Editor's note: Arts Editor Ryah Cooley and Staff Writer Karen Garcia stepped in for Glen and Anna Starkey this week.
From director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours) and writer Steven Rogers (P.S. I love You, Friday Night Lights) comes I, Tonya, based on unbelievable, but true events. This film is a darkly comedic tale of American figure skater, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), and one of the most sensational scandals in sports history. Though Harding was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition, her legacy was forever defined by her association with an infamous, ill conceived, and even more poorly executed attack on fellow Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). The cast is rounded out with a mustachioed Sebastian Stan as Harding's impetuous ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and Allison Janney as her acid-tongued mother, LaVona Golden. (119 min.)
Ryah I was pretty young when Tonya's name was plastered all over tabloid papers and TV news, so up until seeing I, Tonya my recollection of the scandal associated with the famous Olympic ice skater was quite dim. So here's the gist of it for others who may not remember either: Leading up to the 1994 Olympics, Tonya's ex-husband Jeff and his friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Houser) conspired to hire another guy to hit Harding's competitor Kerrigan in the back of the knees with a metal pipe. Harding's involvement in or awareness of this plan varies depending on whose story you believe. Working off a reality that is already pretty out there, I, Tonya presents a dramatic mock-u-mentary retelling of these real-life events, which leave eyebrows raised from start to finish. The screenplay is closely inspired by interviews done with the real people involved in the saga, including Tonya herself. The result is spellbinding. Gillespie and Rogers succeed in not only giving us a peek into Harding's formative years and mind, they pull the whole dang curtain back on the admittedly messed-up world of competitive ice skating. Robbie brings a fiery intensity to the complex Tonya that will surely land her an Oscar. By the time the credits roll, you may or may not be on Tonya's side, but odds are you'll empathize with the self-proclaimed redneck who really never got a fair shake at much in life.
Karen Growing up I wasn't fully aware of the Harding scandal either, I admit I was more of a Michelle Kwan fan myself. So after doing a little research and watching this film I'm still pretty torn on whether Tonya had any knowledge of the assault on Nancy Kerrigan. But let's back up and talk about the depiction of Tonya's upbringing in this film. Her father was in the picture for a while but of course tragically left; cue the tears as a young Tonya stands in front of her father's car to stop him from leaving. So she's stuck with her rough, potty-mouthed mother LaVona. While LaVona sees that Harding has a gift in figure skating at such a young age, she bullies Harding into pursuing the sport instead of supporting her. It was awful to watch LaVona talk down to her child about everything. Tonya even won her first competition at the age of 4, for crying out loud! But tough love, if you could call it that, turns into violence and yelling matches. I commend Janney for delivering a portrayal of a perfectly cold-hearted woman on screen. If emotional and physical abuse from her mother isn't enough, Tonya didn't even stand a chance at gaining acceptance from society. I mean she dropped out of school to train every single day, landed all her jumps and stunts in competition, and she still never got the scores that she deserved. We learn later that the U.S. Figure Skating Association didn't award her high scores because of her overall appearance. Sure she's a stellar figure skater, but her brightly colored outfits, rock music, and redneck home life just isn't the cookie-cutter image the association is looking for. Bite me, guys. Had the association given Tonya a chance, maybe she would have had a different outcome in life—or maybe not. We'll never know.
Ryah The tragic thing about Tonya is I think she could have persevered past the personal stuff in her life, but it was the association's rejection that really got to her. I mean in one scene her mother throws a steak knife at Harding's arm. And Tonya just looks at her mom, pulls the knife out of her arm, and walks away. We see a glimmer of hope when a young Tonya falls in love with Jeff, but a few months in he starts beating her. The two eventually marry when Tonya is just 19, setting the stage for Harding to leave Jeff time and time again, even reuniting with her abuser after divorcing him. Upon confronting a judge about her skating scores, Harding is told that she just doesn't have the wholesome family image the association is looking for. In the smallest, saddest voice, Harding responds with, "Why can't it just be about the skating?" I want to take a moment to remind everyone that Tonya was the first woman in the U.S. and the second in the world, to land a triple axel. Girl had skills. But what audiences came for is the sheer madness that unfolds in the second half of the film. After a threat is called into the ice skating rink where Tonya is set to compete, Jeff has the bright idea to send anonymous, threatening letters to Nancy to throw her off her game. Jeff's BFF/Tonya's bodyguard Shaun somehow gets involved and takes over, hiring two of his guys. Shaun insisted in the film and real life that he was an overseas counter-terrorism expert, in spite of various media outlets disproving this. A bad idea turns into an even worse idea, and things spin wildly out of control, but the most unbelievable aspect of this tabloid tale is just how much the story's villains accomplished, in spite of crippling stupidity. I, Tonya takes someone from popular culture we thought we had the measure of, and throws all of our ideas out the window. Tonya is by no means perfectly innocent in all this, but nor does the blame rest squarely on her shoulders.
Karen I completely agree. This whole incident happened out of immaturity. Let's not forget that when everything transpired, Harding and Jeff were only in their early 20s—arguably they were adults but obviously not mature enough. What I really enjoyed about the film are the interview segments in between scenes. It made the story a lot more interesting to watch because it felt like you were really hearing Tonya, Jeff, or LaVona's side of the story. The actors' portrayals of these individuals just felt so real, so someone please hand Robbie and Janney an Oscar each, thanks. I also loved that Robbie was able to break the third wall with her character. It usually happened during bitter moments in the film like when Jeff was hitting Tonya, and she turns to the screen to say she felt the abuse was her fault. The film did an amazing job of putting the audience in the shoes of each character. Giving each one a chance to tell you how it all went down. Whatever your stance on the Harding/Kerrigan incident, this film is worth the watch. Δ
Contact Arts Editor Ryah Cooley at firstname.lastname@example.org.