Tonya Harding Bio-Pic Sticks the Landing While Contemplating Truth and Socio-Economics in America

I, Tonya
Rated: R
Runtime: 2 hours
Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, and Paul Walter Hauser


I was surprised to learn that prior to seeing this film, I had never actually ever heard of Tonya Harding, let alone the controversy she was at the center of in the 1994 professional ice/figure skating scene, almost certainly due to the O.J. Simpson incident taking place immediately afterwards, overshadowing it completely. But I was even more surprised at how timely the story ended up being to today’s crisis. I, Tonya chronicles the rise and fall of world renowned figure skater Tonya Harding and highlights yet another real-life instance epitomizing the fleeting sustainability of Capitalism as a culture.

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Sebastian Stan (right) puts in a stellar performance as Jeff Gillooly, Tonya’s first husband and “accomplice” to the Nancy Kerrigan assault

I, Tonya tells the story of infamous Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) from her beginnings as a skating prodigy at 4 years old to her fame as the only figure skater to successfully complete two triple axels, a notoriously dangerous skating move, in a single competition, to her accusation, persecution, and lifetime banishment from the sport of figure skating. The film is put together like a quasi-documentary, where the main characters are presumably being recorded by a crew as they recall the events leading up to and immediately after the controversy surrounding Tonya Harding and company’s involvement in the physical assault of rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Rounding out the cast is: Tonya’s hateful mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), Tonya’s first husband Jeff Gillooly (played surprisingly well by Sebastian Stan), and Jeff’s moronic friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). Everyone here is on their A-game, but the heap of praise should be especially placed on Margot Robbie, who is continuing to prove herself a serious dramatic actress; she easily deserves a best actress Oscar nomination for the film. Sebastian Stan demonstrates that, even though he may be known for being a secondary Marvel character, he’s more of “Chris Pine” than a “Chris Hemsworth” – that is, he’s a pretty face that can excel in hard dramas. Allison Janney puts on her best Fletcher (Whiplash) impression and sells it perfectly. The all around strong performances primarily stem from the strength of the writing and the unconventional structure of the narrative.

Early on, the film introduces the idea that maybe, what these characters are telling us isn’t entirely factual, or are flat out delusions, which really opens the door for some creative and interesting characterization. For instance, a common topic in the film is the domestic abuse Tonya endures at the hand of her husband Jeff, whom both in the present-day footage, claim that the other is fabricating or exaggerating what really happened. Anyways, the film presumes to tell the true series of events and in doing so depicts Jeff as being a domestic abuser who grows to beat Tonya on cue by the slightest stressful confrontation. We spend the bulk of 2 hours watching Jeff beat on Tonya for frivolous reasons, and her occasionally man-handle him back, yet when Jeff’s friend Shawn admits to **SPOILER** intentionally setting the events in motion that led to Nancy’s broken knee, an FBI investigation, and Tonya’s eventual banishment from figure skating, Jeff holds himself back from rationally attacking Shaun the same way he attacks Tonya, for significantly lesser reasons. Jeff’s irrational judgment of who around him is liable for violence and who is not, is not only vivid characterization told by “showing” instead of “telling,” but also previews the film’s primary thread, or theme: truth in the socio-economic hierarchy of Capitalism.

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Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) practices hiding a lifetime of adversity and suffering behind a crowd-pleasing smile

Tonya suffers a lot in I, Tonya. She suffers mostly in part because she is a woman, but she suffers more so because she is a women who comes from the bottom of the socio-economic hierarchy. And mostly importantly she suffers because she refuses to fully assimilate to the conventions of the fame she threatens to garner. At a handful of points in the film, present day Tonya interrupts the story to point out a damning fact about Nancy Kerrigan, whom Tonya was accused of having hired a goon to break her knee before a competition. These scenes, while seemingly meant to incriminate or propose doubt in the validity of Tonya’s telling of what happened, to me, are actually a demonstration of how despite Nancy behaving almost identically to Tonya in their rivalry, Tonya is the one persecuted by the figure skating institution; because the reputation of the rebellious “redneck” in her justifies her persecution, admittedly because her image “doesn’t sell.” Tonya’s lifetime as a proverbial and literal punching bag by her abusive mother, her abusive husband, the stingy skating judges, the judicial system, the media, society, and by the end, a formidable roster of women boxers, serves as a microcosm for the perpetual oppression of the poor by a culture defined by potential-for-profit, and consequently a world where truth is a matter of prejudice rather than a matter of fact.

I, Tonya is a great film that suffers from some pacing issues early on, but quickly finds a compelling groove to construct an intelligent commentary on the inherent prejudice in American culture, while also being a good sports movie. Definitely check this one out when you have the chance.

8.9/10

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