I have been trying my best to see this one for weeks, now. It seems like it took forever for it to expand into a Theater Near Me and, when it finally did, I was out of town for the birth of my nephew. I was originally going to catch Insidious: The Last Key, today, but I’ll catch up on that one, in two or three days. I’ve been too anxious for I, Tonya and I didn’t want to wait, anymore.
I am among the many who remember this whole drama surrounding the Olympic skating competition as it played out on television screens across the country. It was very much like a WWE (then-WWF) event as there was a clear babyface in Nancy Kerrigan and a clear heel in Tonya Harding. But only so much of the story was ever going to be revealed through sports and news broadcasts. What really happened? I was fairly young at that time, so I never heard anyone give their version of the whole story. In I, Tonya, we get Tonya Harding’s version of the events (as well as some input from her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly). Are these accounts accurate? Who can say for sure? But it’s all we have for now until Anne Hathaway starts in Nancy: That’s Me! (hey, one can only hope, right?).
While the sensational drama surrounding the 1994 Olympic figure skating competition is the main narrative draw of this picture, I, Tonya is so much more than that. The film doubles as a behind-the-scenes account of the gripping events surrounding that winter in Lillehammer and a biographical telling of the life of Tonya Harding up through those events. Harding, a self-professed “redneck” from Oregon (wonder if she can pump gas?), had much to overcome along her journey to Olympic fame. Growing up with an overbearing (to put it lightly) mother (Allison Janney), a possibly-abusive-or-maybe-abused-or-maybe-both-depending-on-who-you-ask husband in Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and the negative stigma that comes along with her upbringing and public perception, Harding struggles simply to be taken seriously as a competitive athlete, much less to find Olympic success.
Harding herself is presented as a rather sympathetic figure. She’s certainly not without her faults – many of them glaring and harmful to herself – but she’s also not without her endearing qualities. That would naturally make sense since the film is primarily based on her own personal perspective (Harding collaborated with director Craig Gillespie and the filmmakers, participating in many hours of interviews to aid them along in the filmmaking process), but I’m not giving her sole credit. In assuming the role of Harding, Margot Robbie contributes more to the legend of the skater than one think someone would be able to just by simply playing a part.
Robbie doesn’t do a basic impression of Harding. She completely immerses herself in the part and becomes Tonya Harding. While the words being spoken are based on Harding’s personal version of events, it’s Robbie who takes it a step further and makes it all seem entirely plausible. Robbie gifts the film’s version of Harding with a sincerity and naivety that then yields itself to a plausible deniability. As I walked out of the theater, I realized that I was beginning to think that Harding got a bad rap.
But I had to question if that was because of the believability of Harding’s claims or because Robbie was just that remarkably convincing in the role. As more people see this film, I expect that their stances towards Harding will soften. And I will credit that solely to the power of Robbie’s performance. After all, at the beginning of the film, the film itself questions the validity of the events as presented. But Robbie never does. She believes it all and that belief translates flawlessly and emphatically to the screen. How often is a performance so sincere and charismatic that it may actually alter people’s long-held feelings towards a significant moment in (sports) history? The answer is: never, until now. Robbie deserves every nomination and word of praise she’s gotten for the role. And she deserves to win each of those awards. This is a monumental, career-defining performance.
Truth be told, outside of Harding, there’s not a likable character in the entire film (and referring to Harding as likable is questionable, as well). These people are all a product of their environments and their upbringings. None of them are strong enough to rise above the low expectations placed upon them by the rest of society – except for Tonya. But her downfall is portended by her choice of company. Having never truly felt love or acceptance, Harding is willing to take anything that even approximates them in her mind. As a result, the company she keeps is not exactly high caliber. She eventually finds that acceptance within the world of figure skating and it’s at that moment that she begins to define herself entirely by that one ability. Figure skating is the only talent Harding has; it’s all that sets her above – or even alongside – others. And all she asks is that she be fairly recognized for it.
All of this crafts a very sad portrait of an unquestionably talented woman. Despite that, I, Tonya comes well-equipped with a biting, self-deprecating sense of humor and it completely works. The film is funny enough that it doubles as a comedy, and the portrayal of Harding’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser) is among the most damning, yet amusing, of the entire year. Much like another recent biopic that I reviewed, – Molly’s Game – I, Tonya is as unrelentingly entertaining as it is compelling, combining for a one-two wallop that few other recent films have been able to rival.
I, Tonya – again, like Molly’s Game – is exactly the kind of true story that more studios should be searching out for adaptation to film. It’s not a rehash of narratives that have been seen hundreds of times before with some slight cosmetic alterations (looking at you, Darkest Hour). It’s not another typical sports success story with the same old character arcs and story points. And it doesn’t sleepwalk through the proceedings, hitting its marks as though there’s a checklist just off-camera. Not only is the subject matter unconventional, but so is the presentation, with a documentary-style approach being applied as the main story is told through narration and flashbacks, complete with the characters breaking the fourth wall like they’re She-Hulk (sorry, folks. She was doing it years before Deadpool was). Not every true story needs to be made into a film if it’s too similar to what’s come before. Thankfully, there is nothing safe, predictable, or clichéd about I, Tonya.
Simply put, there is nothing left to say about the film other than that it’s easily one of the best and most entertaining films of the year. Fair or not, deserved or not, it has changed my opinion of Tonya Harding so that the next time I see her attempting (and failing) to be witty on TruTv’s “World’s Dumbest . . .”, I won’t hold quite the same level of contempt for her that I did, before. In fact, I won’t hold any contempt for her at all. She did the best she could with what she had. Life sucks, sometimes, and we only have so much control over it. In spite of everything and everyone who pushed against her, she took enough control to become a respected world-class athlete – perhaps even the best in the world at what she did. Between that, the refreshing directorial approach from Gillespie, and Robbie’s literally mind-altering turn as Harding, I, Tonya does everything right and then takes it one step further and does it all right a few more times. This film is another fine 2017 example of why I love movies.
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