I, Tonya: Film Review
For those of us who lived through the 1990s, the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan debacle will forever be ensconced in our minds (along with the Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuoco incident) as the beginnings of tabloid caliber events being treated as compelling news journalism. With the 1994 Olympics on the horizon, figure skaters Harding and Kerrigan were both vying for a position on the US Olympic team. On January 6 of that same year, Kerrigan was attacked by a man who struck her on the right knee with a baton (her landing leg for her on-ice stunts). The man was traced back to Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s on-again/off-again husband. The FBI became involved and the question was, “Did this plan to fell Kerrigan trace its way back to Harding?” The whole thing played out like a paternity test episode of Maury Povich.
The new film I, Tonya, strives to tell the story of Tonya Harding, from her rise from a poor abusive household to being the first figure skater to land a Triple Axel (an extremely difficult maneuver), and then her tragic decline and career destroying connection to the Kerrigan attack. Harding has always claimed that she was innocent of the knowledge that Gillooly had made the arrangements for the attack, but the court of public opinion convicted her of the crime from almost the minute go. I, Tonya, in mock-documentary format, explores the life of Tonya Harding, albeit from a cynical and darkly humorous perspective. Unfortunately, what starts out at a promising approach and style, devolves into the melodrama and mediocrity of a Lifetime Movie of the Week.
Setting aside, for just a moment, the film’s inability to maintain its style and tone, the performances in I, Tonya are exemplary. Margot Robbie, as Tonya Harding, gives a gritty, fearless turn that inspires both contempt and sympathy for this polarizing personality. Even if Harding is a difficult person to like, Robbie incites admiration for her spunk and her resiliency, overcoming a frightening, draconian mother LaVona Fay Golden played with acerbic bluntness and a steely coldness by the always reliable Allison Janney. We look forward to every minute that Janney is on the screen, not because we like her character, but her moments tend to coincide with when the film works best; the black comedy crackles in her hands. Her screen time does much to elicit empathy for Tonya, helping us to comprehend how this talented woman could become the relentless bulldozer she eventually became. As Jeff Gillooly, Sebastian Stan is the epitome of the ne’er-do-well, complete with a sleazy mustache and a vacant expression. Gillooly is void of any actual charm or substance as written, but Stan makes the case for why this aimless schlub would be an attractive choice for Harding to align with. Robbie and Stan pour themselves into their no-holds-barred domestic squabbles, violent and ridiculous, but entirely plausible given the personalities.
This film is billed as a dark comedy, and it sometimes upholds that definition. In its first half hour, much of what we see is slightly unbelievable and often hilarious. The documentary style interviews remind us of films such as Drop Dead Gorgeous and Best in Show, so we accept that the humor is meant to be satiric and edgy. We are not seeing an honest portrayal of the story, but one that asserts a tone and point of view. That would be fine if it were sustained. The problem is, as the film wears on, we begin to realize that there is actually quite a tragic story here. The humor falls away and we are left with a handful of truly pathetic people. The conceit of a mock documentary no longer works and we feel trapped in a mediocre melodrama populated by generalizations, stereotypes, and caricatures. If the film had maintained the humor and edge of its first half-hour, I Tonya would have been a delicious and deft commentary on the competitive nature of our culture, the disparity between the haves and have-nots in American society, and a brutally honest indictment of we, the audience, for creating the platform for trash journalism to succeed and flourish.