If you watch this year’s The Disaster Artist and I, Tonya, you’ll notice similarities between James Franco’s Tommy Wiseau and Margot Robbie’s Tonya Harding: they both are determined individuals, struggling to excel in their passion, but are only scrutinized and mocked in the process. Wiseau just wanted to be a filmmaker, and Harding, an Olympic ice skater. But neither of them could fit the traditional mold in their craft. And while The Disaster Artist gave Wiseau a “happy ending,” I, Tonya doesn’t shy away from Harding’s repercussions. Despite the comedic tone, we see Harding’s tragic story unfold, giving us a glimpse into her tumultuous home life.
If there’s anything to remember about the Winter Olympics, it’s the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan scandal. While practicing in Detroit, Kerrigan was attacked by an assailant with a baton, forcing her to drop out of the national championships. After a media frenzy and investigation, it was discovered that the attack was planned by Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt. I, Tonya lays out Harding’s life up starting with her abusive upbringing to the infamous event. Director Craig Gillespie structures the film in a mockumentary style, with fake interviews recorded 20 years after the film. And while the interviews certainly add to the comedic tone, the film tries to add more quirky elements than it can handle. In addition to to the interviews, characters will break the 4th wall or stare straight into the camera, and it’s too much. The film can’t decide whether it wants to be a Christopher Guest mockumentary or a Coen Brothers film.
I, Tonya really depends on the actors’ performances. Robbie has always been very captivating on screen whether it’s as a bat-wielding criminal or a seductive trophy wife. Her charisma and dedication to these meaty roles make her a force to be reckoned with. I, Tonya would not have been nearly as memorable if anyone else took the title role. Robbie gives the performance of a lifetime as an athlete who is at the top of her sport, but is constantly dragged down by her low sense of self-worth. Whether it’s from her mother (Allison Janney) or her husband, Gilooly (Sebastian Stan), Harding feels like she deserves every black eye she gets. It’s why she can’t seem to leave her husband even after filing a restraining order. Who else would want her?
Janney has perfected the crazy mother persona to a T, but she takes it to a whole new level as LaVona Harding, Tonya’s overbearing, abusive mother. With a cigarette always alit, she is continuously reminding Tonya how much she has sacrificed for her skating and demands that she dedicates her whole life to the sport, even going so far as making her urinate on the rink after refusing to let her go to the bathroom.
But despite her hard work, Harding would always be the ugly duckling of the skating world. She was poor, choreographed routines to heavy metal songs and sewed her own costumes. It didn’t matter that she was the first American woman to land the triple axel; the judges and media were going to go after her regardless because she didn’t adhere to the ladylike image. That makes the Olympic climax so heartbreaking; we see this woman who’s applying blush on her face, longing to be pretty. All she wanted was to be great, but this heinous turn of events made her an outcast.
Rogers and Gillespie ultimately make this Harding’s story. The real-life accounts of the events are still murky, but Rogers heavily skews it to show that Shawn is the real culprit behind the attack. While the men involved only got 18 months in jail, Harding had to pay the ultimate price. She had to partake in 500 hours of community service, pay a hefty fine, and worst of all, accept a lifetime ban from the ice skating association. Since then, her name has become a punchline.
I, Tonya is a very complicated story that will have our hearts pulled in five different directions at once. We’ll laugh, cry, and be angry on her behalf. And most of all, we’ll feel guilty. This dark tragedy eventually points to the abusers in the room: us. In one of her last interviews, Harding says,“It was like being abused all over again, only this time by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.” Gillespie and Rogers don’t pull any punches and make this biopic as ballsy and powerful as the infamous skater herself.