Looking out over today’s scandal every millisecond landscape, it’s hard to imagine a time, more than 20 years ago, where one story continuously dominated the news. But before OJ, before Bill Clinton and the Menendez Brothers, there was a little white trash ice skater who suddenly found herself surrounded by media as a bizarre conspiracy plot played out on TVs across the world. Before “the incident,” few had ever heard of Tonya Harding. After it, few would ever forget her.
Now, Margot Robbie brings the story of what happened during the run-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics to the big screen in the darkly comic I, Tonya. Playing the beleaguered athlete, whose life was clearly a collection of abusers and users, the Aussie actress captures the drive of a young woman, with no other options, who sees skating as her salvation. In fact, the only time she is ever remotely close to happy is when the crowd is on their feet as she completes another complicated move.
We first meet Harding (initially played by Mckenna Grace) when she is a very young prodigy. One thing is very clear–this girl has a rare athletic gift. It’s just too bad it landed in a family filled with a bitter, angry mother (a brilliant Allison Janney) and a disinterested dad. She beats her. He takes her hunting. After the mandatory marital break-up, a teenage Harding (Robbie) starts aiming for the big time. The biggest hurdle to overcome is not her routine, but her less than fairytale life and equally non-All American attitude. Judges constantly mark her down, even when she manages to pull off moves no other female figure skater has ever attempted.
At this point, she meets future ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Shaw), and another cycle of abuse begins. They fight. They make up. She competes. She argues with her coach (Julianna Nicholson) and continues to earn her bag girl reputation. When it looks like she will be eclipsed by the goody-two shoes Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), Gillooly concocts a plot to take her down. His plan involves a fake death threat. Unfortunately, he entrusts this idea to the mentally unstable Shawn Eckhardt (a hilarious Paul Walter Hauser) who hires some goon buddies to injure Kerrigan before the 1994 National Figure Skating Championships. The rest, as they say, it tabloid news history.
Undeniably funny, a bit obvious, and insightful in ways that work against its subject matter, I, Tonya is not just some goofball retelling of the most unusual “crime” in amateur athletics. It showcases the struggle of an outsider in an insider’s world, all under some of the most misguided and mean-spirited thinking ever to grace the rink. There’s a scene involving Harding, her mom, and a kitchen knife that exemplifies everything director Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl) hopes to achieve here. The violence visited on Harding is horrible, but it’s also sadly indicative of her reality. It happens. It’s awful. The crappy life has to go on.
The performances here are first rate. Robbie and Janney deserve all the end-of-the-year attention they are receiving, each one finding the right balance between ballsy and broken. The latter has the flashier turn, but there are subtle facial gestures which prove that Mom is just as much a mess as everyone else. The real breakout work here comes from Hauser. One could honestly envision an entire movie based on Eckhardt’s delusional middle aged dork, a self-described “terrorism expert” who still lives with his parents. Even Shaw drops all his Winter Soldier facade to turn Gillooly into a hissable, hopeless villain.
I, Tonya is not perfect. It’s a bit too pat and plays around with the facts. But in the end, it’s a wonderfully warped look at one of the strangest stories in the history of sports.