By Micah Walker
Twenty-four years have passed since former figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted during a training session for the 1994 Olympics. The mastermind behind the incident was the husband of Kerrigan’s rival, Tonya Harding. Never one to truly fit in the world of figure skating, Harding was quickly labeled “the villain” and the scandal ultimately ruined her career.
So why make a Tonya Harding movie now?
As fellow disgraced athlete O.J. Simpson received the small screen treatment in 2016, director Craig Gillespie proves Harding’s case is worth re-examining as well with I, Tonya. Rather than turning the figure skater’s tragic story into the form of a Lifetime original movie, he reimagines it as a dark comedy.
I, Tonya begins with Harding’s early years in Portland, Oregon, as her mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), forces her young daughter to take ice skating lessons. Struggling to make ends meet as a waitress, Golden puts all of her money towards Harding’s lessons and sews her daughter’s costumes herself. But as Harding’s talent blossoms, Golden becomes verbally and physical abusive.
Into her teenage years and onward, Harding is played by Margot Robbie. She channels the anger fueled by her mother into her performances, reaching her peak in 1991 at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where she becomes the first American female skater to land a difficult move called the triple axel.
While Harding’s star is beginning to rise, her personal life is falling apart. Her boyfriend and eventual husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), seems to be the one person that truly loves her, but turns out to be abusive as well. Gillooly was Harding’s first love, and their relationship is toxic and they both know the other person is bad for them, but they keep coming back to each other anyway.
Paul Walter Hauser comes in later as Harding’s “bodyguard,” Shawn Eckhardt, a bumbling idiot and Gillooly’s friend who is partly responsible for the 1994 attack. (Which happened at Cobo Arena, by the way.)
In between the narrative of Harding’s life are “interviews” in the style of a mockumentary. Set in the present day, Harding, Gillooly, Eckhardt, and Golden each give their accounts of the events that occurred during the skater’s brief rise and fall from grace, often contradicting each other.
Robbie’s physical and internal transformation of Harding is impressive. With her big, early 90’s hairstyles, crudeness, and tough exterior, you start to believe Robbie is Tonya Harding. Instead of portraying her like the “mean girl” the media made her out to be, the actress gives Harding complexity. The disgraced skater is turned into a sympathetic character; someone who is looking for love and acceptance while her mother, husband, and the figure skating community shut her out. While Robbie has been on the radar for a few years with roles in The Wolf of Wall Street and Suicide Squad, this is her best performance yet, hopefully cementing her place in the circle of Young Hollywood.
Stan is also great as the eccentric, but mentally unstable, Gillooly. At times, he plays the mustached man with a quiet, sweet demeanor. The rest of the time, he explodes, especially during arguments with Harding. Even though Gillooly is supposed to be one of the antagonists in the film, he can be oddly sympathetic in some scenes, as he fights for Harding’s attention in the midst of her career.
However, the real villain is Golden. Janney plays her hard and straight, leaving little room to somewhat sympathize or like the character. While Golden does push her daughter to become one of the most successful figure skaters in America, she is also responsible for Harding’s low self-esteem outside of skating, as well as her premature career. Janney does have her funny moments, though during the “interview” segments, usually with a bird perched on her shoulder.
The choice of turning Harding’s story into a hybrid of comedy, drama, and mockumentary was an odd choice, but it works in Gillespie’s and writer Steven Rogers’ favor. They turn I, Tonya from the typical biopic into a fun, energetic, funny, and devastating film of someone who the world has long forgotten. However, there are times when the silliness could have been left out, such as a scene where Gillooly is abusing Harding.
Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis should also be recognized for his work on the skating sequences, which are shot beautifully. One of my favorite moments in the film is Harding’s triple axel performance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Robbie, (and her stunt double), are graceful on the ice, which is propelled by the tracking shots that capture the skater’s every move. After playing the scene at normal speed, the moment where she lands the triple is shown again, this time in slow motion, as Harding recounts what she was thinking at the time. The moment perfectly captures what the skater had been longing for: true happiness.