The story of figure skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan is a complicated one that has become a sports legend of sorts over the past 20 years. Whenever told in the past, Harding has always been the villain, depicted as a jealous, rough-around-the-edges country girl who would go to crazy lengths to ensure her victory over Kerrigan – and who did. In countless documentaries and news specials on the incident, the same story is repeated ad infinitum: Harding hated Nancy Kerrigan with a passion, Harding ordered that Kerrigan’s kneecaps be smashed, Harding never owned up to her evil deeds. In “I, Tonya”, director Craig Gillespie tells a different, perhaps more truthful story. He shows us that the details of the incident are more complicated than they seem, and he finally gives us a reason to root for Harding.
Gillespie portrays Harding (Margot Robbie) as a woman unloved and misunderstood. The film begins with Harding as a young girl, pushed to the absolute limit by her domineering mother (Allison Janney) who won’t even let Harding take a bathroom break in fear that it will break her concentration on the ice. After years of enduring both her mother’s physical and mental abuse, Harding finds herself a man who loves her – or so she thinks. Her new husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, of “Captain America” fame) is even more abusive than her mother; over and over again he beats her up, leaving her with bruises and black eyes, and then begs her for forgiveness, which she all too often gives him. Even the judges give her a hard time despite her having more difficult jumps than the rest of the field – they downgrade her scores because she skates to rock music and tell her she doesn’t represent the kind of role model they want to crown champion because she doesn’t come from a wholesome American family.
Despite everything working against her, Harding manages to rise to the top of her sport. She skates at the 1992 Winter Olympics and finishes fourth, then decides to try for the 1994 Olympic team. Then the infamous incident occurs and her world spirals out of control. Whereas most documentaries about the incident show Harding to be the plotter of the vile deed, in “I, Tonya”, she knows nothing of the crime or its plans until it’s done.
Gillespie’s film is intense and engaging as it rapidly moves from being a comedy at one moment to a gruesome drama the next. Margot Robbie is excellent in the starring role, and she truly captures the mental distress and inner conflict the real Harding endured under so much outside pressure. Gillespie’s integration of documentary-style confessionals into the film (which are made to look identical to real documentaries of the incident) contrast how the story has been told for the past 20 years with what the film puts forth as truth. The hyperbolic style of the film, with characters breaking the fourth wall and the hyper-speed CGI spins performed by the skaters, would in any other case seem excessive and over-the-top. It works for this film because the exaggeration matches the magnitude of what was a national incident – as Harding’s character says near the end, she was the 2nd most known person in 1994.
In “I, Tonya”, Harding is not the enemy, the perpetrator, or even a collaborator. Instead, she is an innocent bystander – a woman simply caught up with the wrong people at the wrong time. This is perhaps the first time Harding has been humanized in a film; she is finally someone you can feel sympathy for because her backstory, her struggles, and the truth are brought out. In a way, the film lets Tonya tell her side of the story, and in doing so, finally gives her the fair shot she’s been asking for all her life.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ 1/2