Cleveland, Ohio — Most people recall polarizing figure skating legend Tonya Harding as the one who orchestrated the brutal knee injury to her American rival, Nancy Kerrigan. While it’s unclear how much knowledge Tonya Harding had of the attack’s planning, she and her husband Jeff Gillooly, with various degrees of culpability, sent an attacker to Cobo Arena, who smashed in Kerrigan’s knee with a police baton. The motive was to make sure that Harding made the Olympic team for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Norway.
As Margot Robbie, who plays Harding in the film, says at one point in the film, “People in America wants someone to love… but they also want someone to hate,” and Harding fell into the latter category, particularly after what happened to Kerrigan. While much of her legacy has been shrouded by this incident, the film “I, Tonya,” directed by Craig Gillespie, takes up the task of telling Harding’s full story. The film portrays her as being somewhat of a tragic hero: the odds are always stacked against her, the people closest to her constantly put her down, and the public demonized her. Yet she somehow persevered, and became someone we can perhaps love as well.
Figure skating is a sport mainly reserved for the rich, yet Harding came from a lower-middle class background, and spent much of her free time doing unseemly activities like hunting and doing wheelies in the dirt in a jeep. Her image wasn’t cultivated enough for the judges’ tastes at competitions, and she was always an outsider, striving to break in. But she was the first woman to do a triple axel, so she had the raw talent to make a name for herself despite these odds.
But most people already know the basic story of Tonya Harding. What’s more interesting about this movie is its form, and the points it is trying to make in documenting Harding’s life. The film is loosely structured like a faux-documentary, with the main characters all periodically being interviewed, with flashbacks telling the main story separating these segments. The story is told by the characters in the aftermath of all that has happened. It all takes place after the storm.
The film is mostly about relationships, and how Harding’s relationships affected her. Robbie does a wonderful job of portraying the transformation of Tonya: from the naïve young girl who just loved figure skating and hunting, to her older, tougher self that had undergone physical abuse in relationships, to the cynical woman who had experienced it all and writes off all of the events of her life as absurd, and almost impossible to explain rationally. She is like Ecclesiastes at the end of the book of the same name, who has lived through it all and calls it all vanity.
Allison Janney’s performance is the one that sticks out, however. She plays Tonya’s mother LaVona, who is extremely strict and hard on Tonya. She always has a clove cigarette in her mouth, and is a testament both to the sacrifices parents make for their kids and to how an abusive relationship between parent and child can seriously harm the child. She makes her mark on several scenes. At the beginning of the film, Tonya and Jeff, Tonya’s eventual husband, go on their first date, and LaVona goes with them. She gets right down to business, and asks Jeff, “So, are you a gardener or are you a flower?” To which Jeff replies, “What?” And LaVona says back, “A relationship has a gardener and a flower. And Tonya is definitely a flower.” Later, she tells Tonya at her wedding at the age of 22 that she’s made a huge mistake. And yet there are moments that are genuinely touching, like when she is working her shift at the diner and neglecting her job in order to watch Tonya perform at the Olympics on the television.
Paul Walter Hauser also does a fine job portraying Shawn, who is the main source of comic relief in the film. Aside from being the mastermind behind the Kerrigan attack, he is also, as he says, a counter-terrorism expert who has been cited as such in various journals. He fantasizes about being a CIA agent, and has a lot of “guys.” In reality he’s just a fat overgrown boy who lives in his parents’ basement, and who has the backbone of one of those inflatable humanoid things that blow in the wind outside of used car dealerships.
Finally, there’s Sebastian Stan, who portrayed Jeff Gillooly. His was a very nuanced, intricate performance. On the one hand, Jeff is very reserved and shy, but on the other hand, at the flip of a switch, he can go into full on domestic abuse mode. He had to portray a monstrous figure while also remaining quiet and somewhat sympathetic. Not only that, he was an emotional leech on Tonya, striving to keep her down on his level rather than allowing her to spread her wings and sore.
“I, Tonya” is a fantastic film, backed up by some astounding performances, a wonderful formal experimentation of story and documentary style interviews, and a chronicle of the human spirit, in its triumphs, failures, and striving. Harding wanted to be the best, and she may just have been, if only for a moment. But the cost of greatness, in her case, was becoming a pariah, banished from the public eye. Hopefully this film allows people to see that there is a dangerous effect to making someone the object of universal public contempt, without really knowing the full story. In any case, the end of the film had a message from Harding herself: she wants people to know that she’s a good mother. While not the main purpose of the film, “I, Tonya” is cathartic and can perhaps put a close to the Harding-as-Outcast saga, and allow everyone to move on.
Photo courtesy US Weekly