When spectators at the ’94 Lillehammer Winter Olympics filed into the female figure skating final, the actual performance took a backseat to the drama surrounding skater Tonya Harding. Accused of plotting an attack on her Olympic competitor, Harding would fail to medal at the games, be barred from US figure skating by the courts, and quickly fade from the public eye. The ’94 games seemed like the culmination and end of her story as far as the public was concerned, but much like the recent miniseries The People vs. O.J. Simpson, I, Tonya compellingly mines a 90’s true crime story to examine issues that could not be more timely.
Screenwriter Steven Rogers sees Tonya’s story as one primarily of class struggle, focusing on her lower-class upbringing which carried with it many of its worst stereotypical features: child abuse, domestic abuse, lack of education, and enduring constant condescension. Using modern-day set interviews with the characters as a framing device, the film is able to reflect on all of these while covering Tonya’s entire life leading up to her court conviction.
A child prodigy, we see Harding’s raw talent both brutally encouraged by her financially-strapped mother (a scene-stealing Allison Janney), and undermined by a figure skating judges who would rather have anyone but the lower-class Harding be their champion. Watching Janney down whiskey while critiquing a 4-year old Tonya from the sidelines is both hysterical and heartbreaking, and unfortunately only the beginning as verbal critiques evolve into physical attacks.
Meanwhile, none of her hard work or her mother’s insults pay off at the competitions, as she is continually snubbed of the gold. When Harding quits school to pursue skating and marries the abusive Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), it becomes clear that she must find true skating success and acceptance to have any chance of breaking out of the kind of life her mother has led.
Once Tonya becomes the first American woman ever to land a triple axel jump in competition, the film starts covering plot points more familiar to the public. Her competition with rival American Nancy Kerrigan threatening her chances as Olympic redemption in Lillehammer, Gillooly and his buddy hatch a scheme to anonymously threaten Kerrigan and wrack her nerves. Unsurprisingly, that plan does not go as Gillooly planned, and Harding is dragged into the FBI investigation due to her complicity. The subsequent court ruling would bar her from US figure skating, cutting her off from her claim to fame and her lifeline.
Breaking up this engrossing family drama and comedy are several stunningly-shot skating sequences and the modern-day framing devices, which add some great commentary and cutting humor into the mix. The extended skating scenes, especially Harding’s first triple axel, are some of the most adrenaline-pumping of the year (sorry, Michael Bay), while also genuinely informative about the specifics of the sport.
As we follow Harding through her troubles at home and on the ice, director Craig Gillespie exhibits unexpected deftness at balancing the weight of the abuse and the humor that underscores the ridiculousness of the decisions by her loved ones. While some have worried that the film’s comedic beats undermine the severity of the abuse, it never comes across as dismissive. The comedy derives its potency from simply how much Tonya had to bear while only in her early 20’s.
The film’s success must also be credited to the actors, with the entire ensemble firing on all cylinders here. Janney is the scene-stealer, but this movie is carried by Margot Robbie’s fierce and star-making performance. She’s been good in plenty of films before, but this is the first real chance to flex her dramatic and comedic chops to this extent, and she succeeds in crafting a multi-faceted portrayal of a difficult subject.
The prolonged scene of her breaking down while applying her Olympic make-up is one of the best-acted of the year. Stan is given less to work with, but his Gillooly is both charming and menacing, a difficult combination but one that is crucial to understanding why Harding would continue to stay with him. It’s a shame he was not able to gain some awards consideration given this year’s relatively weak field.
As the movie wraps things up, it is hard not to walk away wracked with questions and doubt. Here was a lower-class star who was severed from the one thing that could elevate her from her beginnings, all because she knew that her husband wanted to play dirty against a system unfairly stacked against her. Yet she was still undoubtedly complicit in the planning of a crime that ended with a violent attack.
Wrapped up in that is a whole host of questions about gender, classism, professional sports, and media ethics, which makes I, Tonya surprisingly one of the 2017’s more thought-provoking films. That it is also one of the its more entertaining ones makes I, Tonya a cinematic delight, and one of the best biopics in quite some time.