Directed by: Craig Gillespie/2017
After a couple of films for Disney, The Finest Hours and Million Dollar Arm, director Craig Gillespie puts together a wonderful cast to tell the “true” story of Tonya Harding. While many might remember Tonya, the olympic figure skater known for her role in the vicious knee attack on fellow teammate Nancy Kerrigan, perpetrated by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and bodyguard Shawn Eckardt, they may shocked by the whole story.
Margot Robbie (Goodbye Christopher Robin, Suicide Squad) gives an amazing performance as Tonya Harding, perfectly capturing her uneducated, backwoods persona, while also helping create a tremendous amount of empathy for a character that had become a caricature and parody of public persona. Robbie is able to handle all multifaceted nuances of Harding the individual, most notably the woman who was abused by her husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan-Captain America: Civil War) while trying to pull herself up personally and professionally.
The most toxic relationship, and the most fun on screen, is between Tonya and her mother LaVona Golden, played perfectly by Allison Janney (The Way Way Back, Juno). I will just say outright that the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress may be a foregone conclusion as Janney is incredible and mesmerizing in this role.
While this film serves as a bio-pic, it also qualifies as a dark-comedy complete with fourth-wall breaking moments sprinkled throughout that add to the outrageousness of this story. Even though you know this story to be true as many of us watched it play out in the mid-1990’s, these moments cause you to cynically distrust the “facts” as they are presented in this film. You will tell yourself that while Harding was real, had a real ex-husband and bodyguard who kneecapped Nancy Kerrigan leading to her removal from the sport of Ice Skating, there is no way that these portrayals are accurate. They must simply be a “Hollywood-azation” of these people, with false narratives being inserted into the script for a more compelling cinema experience.
This happens all too often with “based on a true story” type films, and so I don’t blame you for such thoughts. I had them as well. But, when the film ends and the credits roll, and we are treated with the actual video interviews that were used as the basis for this film, and the interviews each character gives us throughout the film as they retell their version of the truth, you will see that what we have seen in the film is frightenly too close to the actual truth. This is especially true for an interview of Shawn Eckardt, played perfectly by Paul Walter Hauser (Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and of course the interviews of LaVona, complete with a quaker parrot on her shoulder biting at her ear and oxygen tube while she curses up a storm only cements how perfect Janney is.
The film is one of the better films of 2017, but does seem to drag a bit whenever Janney is not on the screen. This is especially punctuated by Janney herself as her character breaks the fourth wall decrying the film for sidelining her part of the story at one point. That is not to say that the film or the rest of the cast isn’t pulling their weight. They are, and then some. It is just how powerful Janney is in this role.
Sebastian Stan is a monster as Jeff Gillooly on one hand as we see him go from lovingly kissing his wife to brutally punching her in the face, often right before a major competition. Lots of makeup applied by Harding as a part of her skating costume helped cover-up the abuse to the public, but it is jarring as we watch the horrendous abuse she endured, while being charmed in the more modern-day set interviews that Jeff is giving in the film as he casts himself as a loving husband who made some mistakes, but isn’t at all like Tonya is making him out to be.
This is all being corralled in the background by sensationalist news journalist portrayed by Bobby Cannavale (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Ant-Man) who as a producer of the show Hard Copy, encapsulates the stereotype of tabloid journalism. What is especially funny, and on-the-nose tragic is how he explains to us that back then (the 1990’s), real journalism outlets ridiculed the methods and type of journalism practiced by shows like Hard Copy before eventually becoming them.
I, Tonya is a film that you will walk away loving. It also may be the best character resurrecting piece of propaganda for the real Tonya Harding who aims to get beyond the professional boxer, celebrity death-match type of reality star she became when she was banned from the sport she loved at the age of 23. Or, it may not be propaganda at all if the interviews we see afterwards are any indication. The scariest proposition I, Tonya presents to us is that it all might be the truth.
I, Tonya is currently playing in select markets like Houston, New York, and Los Angeles, with a wide-release coming in January.