I remember when the attack on Nancy Kerrigan occurred. I recall thinking, “gosh, who would do something like that to a figure skater and why?” As the story unfolded it became clear that this attack was part of some hair brained but dangerous scheme cooked up by a collection of misfits and delusional secret agent wannabes, and at the heart of it, was the champion skater Tonya Harding. The whole affair become a media circus leading the evening news, captivating the nation. The elevated TV ratings of women’s figure skating at the 1994 winter Olympics, were due to the overwhelming interest in Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan The people in Tonya Harding’s orbit became characters in a national soap opera that as it’s core was the image of Nancy Kerrigan, holding her injured leg wondering “why?”
Craig Gillespie’s I Tonya tells us “why”, from Harding’s point of view anyway and the point of view of her cartoonish cohorts. It’s up to us to determine if our narrators are reliable or not.
Tonya(Margot Robbie in a career defining role) is not like the other stalwarts of her sport. Possessed of uncommon talent and drive , but as the child of her single mother LaVona, played by the amazing Allison Janney, an angry, emotionally absent, profane waitress, resources were not easy to come by. Handmade or hand-me-down dresses looked shabby against the more polished and sequined outfits of her competitors. More athletically toned than lithe Harding has a tough appearance in contrast with the other skaters, these things are seen as shortcomings by the judges in what has to be the most unfair, subjective sport of them all. Her skating, which is at times technically brilliant is not scored fairly due to these perceived style deficits. Tonya Harding became a champion Olympic skater in spite of all of that.
You know the story by now, Tonya gets married to a fairly dimwitted guy named Jeff Gillooly, their relationship is abusive. Jeff routinely hits her. Tonya takes the abuse in stride, after all her mother was both physically and emotionally abusive. LaVona is a chain smoking,, foul mouthed, impatient advocate for her daughter’s talent. She broke open doors for Tonya that may have otherwise been shut by sheer force of personality, but at the same time seems entirely incapable of expressing love for her daughter. Allison Janney tackles this role with steely cold eyes but still leaving a little space for humor in the foibles of her character. She is deservedly winning awards for this performance.
Jeff gets involved with an even dumber group of ne’er-do-wells who, in an effort to intimidate Nancy Kerrigan, to “get in her head”, and in doing so hopefully increase Tonya’s chances at the ’94 games” they execute the assault that would etch itself into the darker history of sports.
But we never heard much from what has to be the dumbest group of co-conspirators in modern crime history. It was these jokers that that world was fixated on, not Nancy Kerrigan. We wanted a look at the bumbling clowns that perpetrated the crime. I Tonya gives is that look and the story is told from their point of view, and the stories often contradict, but that only adds to the humorous aspect of the film.
It takes a talented group of people to make a story about an assault humorous. There are those who will tell you that I Tonya is not JUST about the assault, and to some extent they are correct, but the assault, whether Harding likes it or not, is the central event in Tonya’s life. Everything in her life lead to it, and everything since has been colored by it, for better or worse. It is what it is.
Margot Robbie takes this role and gives it life and humor. She is truly a wonder in this film. Does the portrayal rehabilitate the image of Tonya Harding? No, but it does give her point of view a voice. You the viewer can choose to believe what you want. The movie is not a boilerplate, cookie cutter, bio that tries to repair a damaged image in the national zietgiest and that is the reason why I Tonya is so good.
Let’s not forget, at the core of this story, some men walked up to an athlete, a young woman and smashed her knee with baton. Don’t get me wrong, I Tonya is a wonderful film, one of the years best and deserving of all the accolades, but I wonder when a film can be made that tells what it’s like to come off the ice and have what happened to Nancy Kerrigan happen.
Will such a film be less interesting to us because the story isn’t full of colorful criminals?
Where is Nancy’s ticket to the Oscars?
At least with I Tonya, for whatever it’s worth, we know “why”.
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