When it comes to a popular story, be it one revolving around pop culture, politics, murder, or entertainment, I either know close to everything about it or I know nothing at all. Until I learned that a biopic on former figure skater Tonya Harding was in production, I thought Harding was a singer of some sort all this time. I had no idea of her and her incendiary personality, and absolutely no inkling as to what transpired in Detroit in 1994 when Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by associates of Harding and her husband.
Thankfully, Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, Million Dollar Arm) has made a film as edgy and as entertaining as Tonya Harding herself, so the few people like me can learn the specifics of the troubled skater’s career. For the rest of the masses who vividly recall Harding’s emphatic rise and graceless fall, Gillespie’s I, Tonya gives you all the scandal and gossip-laden tone you could ever want. He and writer Steven Rogers do the unthinkable by first getting us to recognize that we probably don’t know Harding’s entire story like we think we do (similar to how many likely don’t know who Stella Liebeck is, although they are quick to say her suing McDonald’s after her coffee spilled on her crotch was egregious abuse of the legal system). We know the sensationalized accounts and the main components of Harding’s story, but we don’t know her background, her relationships, or anything outside of the fact that we loved watching her skate and we relished in her fumbling her young life away like we so often do.
Here, she’s played by Margot Robbie in a career-making performance. Robbie, who has shown flashes of potential greatness in films like The Wolf of Wall Street and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, finally gets a crack at a character she can embody. The result is a fearless revelation worthy of all the acclaim and accolades that will come in the next few months. Robbie is the kind of actress that you could see confidently taking a maligned public figure to portray in a rather empathetic docudrama with her simple assurance along the lines of, “just watch how I handle this” being all you need to know before watching her knock the performance out of the park.
Before we see Robbie give one of the year’s best performances, we watch a four-year-old Tonya (played by Gifted‘s Mckenna Grace) endure years of ruthless skating lessons at the persistence of her domineering mother LaVona, played by a terrific Allison Janney (who rivals Laurie Metcalf for best performance as a helicopter mother of the year). Her mother pushes her with neglect and abuse to transcend the average princess-look of an American figure skater in order to stand out and stick landings no other skater would even attempt. In her mid-teens she meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), whom she marries despite his own physically and mentally abusive habits in effort to break free from her mother and get some form of independence. Jeff is by her side nonetheless when she competes in the Winter Olympics, earning high-marks but not ones high enough to overcome the flagrant biases of the judges. They view Tonya as a white-trash byproduct of a podunk community with no business being on the ice competing with more, say, photogenic skaters that effectively turn the Olympics into a beauty pageant on ice.
Out of stress and fear, and in lieu of receiving a death threat, Tonya conjures up a plan with Jeff to keep Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), one of the prettier, more favored skaters in the 1994 Olympics, on her toes in the wake of the competition. Jeff decides to enlist in the help of his friend and Tonya’s bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and some of his associates to send some threatening letters to Nancy to weaken her confidence. Miscommunications and the unthinkable ineptitude of Shawn’s guys lead to things going a step further with one of them striking Nancy’s knee with a retractable baton, breaking her leg days before the competition. This thrusts Tonya and Jeff into a media firestorm of responsibility and involvement that takes even more of the attention off of the competition, what Tonya originally wished it was all about in the first place.
Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis manages to decorate I, Tonya in two very difficult ways. For the opening minutes, the film is every bit of the 1970s that you could ask for, right down to the accouterments of the average kitchen that are made to look more than retro-chic with his soft camera lenses. For the remainder of the film, however, Karakatsanis employs a great 1990s aesthetic that feels like the decade that it is: so close to the present yet so far in the past. As such, Robbie’s Tonya Harding is given a space where we don’t have to stretch to believe she really was a huge public figure. We can adjust our sense of the period thanks to the way Karakatsanis recreates the time period where O.J. Simpson ostensibly achieved larger-than-life status; Tonya fits right in under the given rules and disregard of constraints that once applied to celebrities. Also allowing for full immersion of this period is a rockin’ soundtrack of great tunes of yesteryear, including, but not limited to, the familiar sounds of Heart, Cliff Richard, Supertramp, Fleetwood Mac, and Violent Femmes.
Tonya Harding was a woman that never had a sense of stability and security in her life. Her father left when she was young, rendering her entire childhood to be overseen by her manipulative mother, who abused her terribly, and her marital life was defined by even more unforgivable abuse by an erratic man with no moral compass whatsoever. As such, like a lot of stars that explode young only to have the pieces scatter so far and wide they cannot be recovered, Tonya was thrust into a dangerous existence that ended miserably for almost everyone involved. She was expelled and permanently banned from the figure skating association, drawing an unceremonious end to the only release and passion life warranted her. I’m not saying she deserves complete vindication, and I don’t think that’s what Gillespie and Rogers are suggesting either. What she doesn’t deserve, however, is to be caricatured like so many so often do to the unconventional (and conventional) public figures that populate America’s zeitgeist. She deserves her story to be told accurately and I, Tonya warrants her that much and that much done very well.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!