Anyone old enough to remember 1994 will get some serious déjà vu watching I, Tonya. Remember Tonya Harding crying with her skate-covered foot propped up on the judges' table? The way I remember it, I was an 18-year-old judging her from my living room: look at this bitch, trying to convince us all of her innocence, she isn't fooling anybody. I had no idea how much I had been duped by the sensationalized media coverage.
And therein lies the magic of I, Tonya, which tells the story from Harding's perspective, underscores how fundamentally unfairly she was treated her entire career, and how little she directly had to do with the assault on Nancy Kerrigan . . . maybe.
Time changes everything, after all, and plenty of people these days are eager to come forward and talk about how horrible Kerrigan apparently was. Not that she deserved a club to the knee. But there now seems to be plenty of empathy around for Tonya Harding. That's certainly the tone of I, Tonya, which presents Harding as a deeply flawed individual, maybe even sometimes a bad person -- but treated so bady, by the press and by her own family, that it's easy to come down on her side.
Margot Robbie gives an incredible performance as Harding, embodying the young woman with a trashy background that the media loved to look down on her for, without ever turning her into caricature. She more than meets her match in Allison Janney as her hard-driving and often very abusive mother.
And that brings us to one of the common criticisms of I, Tonya, that it makes light of domestic violence and uses it for entertainment -- and I didn't really get that from it. A lot of domestic violence is indeed depicted here, which is arguably odd for what I suppose could best be called a tragicomedy, but not to would have been disingenuous. Harding had a mother who hit her, who at one point threw a knife into her arm, and the cycle continued with Harding's husband. It's sad, but hardly abnormal, for a woman to find it difficult to break up with an abusive man and also stay away from him.
This husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), turned out to be one of the people who set into motion the events that resulted in Nancy Kerrigan, Harding's primary rival in figure skating, assaulted. If this movie -- and Tonya Harding herself -- is to be believed, Harding had very little knowledge of the "plan" hatched by Jeff's jaw-droppingly idiotic friends, who turned what started as just sending threatening letters into bashing a kneecap.
Director Craig Gillespie here unfolds the story with precision and skill, first introducing us to Harding as a young girl obsessed with ice skating, with a domineering mother (and Janney does an excellent job of making her as scary as she is funny), and waiting until about halfway through the film to get into the details of the assault. By then, we have really gotten to know these characters, all of them presented with greater nuance than you'd expect from a movie about a supposedly trashy figure skater. Not one of these characters devolves into caricature, and they quite easily could have.
If I had any real complaint about this movie, it would be that Nancy Kerrigan herself features so little in it. She does appear as a character, but I think the only line she actually utters onscreen is the infamous crying "Whyyyy?" that we all saw on the news. Sure, this is very much Tonya Harding's story, but she is far more interconnected with Nancy Kerrigan in the real world than she seems to be in this movie -- when she interrupts the narrative just a couple of times to make quick observations. For instance, that they were once roommates and partied together. A little more of that fleshed out would actually have done I, Tonya some good. I feel like giving the woman who portrayed her, Caitlin Carver, a shout-out just because she gets so sidelined.
On the other hand, it was Harding herself who got sidelined constantly, never for particularly good reasons, and she was a genuinely great figure skater -- the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, after all. I, Tonya offers an insightful look at the world she came from, and how it informed her often very bad decisions. You can't necessarily condone a lot of her actions, but Margot Robbie in particular makes you understand why she did them. Here is a woman dealt a punishment wildly out of proportion to the crime -- well, at least, what crime she actually committed herself.
I, Tonya also features plenty of scenes with Harding's performances, and they are edited and shot beautifully. Watching this movie, you'll laugh, you'll cringe, you'll leave this movie pondering what a sad story Tonya Harding's really was, while also having been thoroughly entertained for two hours.
Opens Thursday evening, January 4.