Tonya Harding’s life was figure skating. From the time she won her first competition at the age of four to her final appearance at the Olympics in Lillehammer, Harding’s life revolved around figure skating. It was in her blood. It was in the air she breathed. She faced pushback from the figure skating community who did not want her “low-class” style ruining their prim and proper sport, but Harding forged on nonetheless and forced her detractors to recognize her skill. She excelled greatly, becoming the best women’s figure skater in the world after her triple axel – the first ever attempted and completed by an American woman in competition – in 1991. Yet, what she is remembered for is what happened off the ice. An attempt by director Craig Gillespie and star Margot Robbie to re-shift public attention away from the Nancy Kerrigan incident to the blood, sweat, and tears Harding poured into her skating, the film feeds off of Harding’s love to great effect. I, Tonya brings to the surface preconceptions about Harding, but through the recounting of her difficult childhood, her abusive marriage, and the way in which her life fell apart due to her association with morons, the film makes the audience feel and hurt right alongside her.
I, Tonya certainly paints its protagonist in a positive light during the course of the film, but always with great reason. As it introduces her brutal mother LaVona (Allison Janney), it becomes no mystery as to why Tonya later tells her mother that she “cursed her” through her behavior. Teaching Tonya to be boisterous, aggressive, and to view everyone as out to get her, she slowly cultivates a “me against the world” attitude within her daughter. LaVona yells at Tonya, beats her in the bathroom, allows her to wet herself and continue to skate while wet, throws a knife at her, and makes her feel guilty for all of the money she spends on her figure skating. All in the course of one film. This is not a mother who is warm and cuddly by any means, but rather one who installs a permanent chip on Tonya’s shoulder; one that accepts abuse as love and one that always waits for somebody to try to undermine her accomplishments. Tonya wants to be loved by the world, yes, but she unwittingly barrels towards villainhood through behavior she learned from her mother. It is a demeanor that will not endear her to the world she wants to love her, but rather draw its ire.
As such, I, Tonya firmly cements itself as a tragic story. At its very core, it is a story about a girl who wants to skate and to be loved. By the film’s finale, she can no longer skate, her mother continues to mistreat her, and her husband ruins her life after spending years beating her. The world hates her, figure skating hates her, and any of her friends left her behind long ago. This is why the triple axel sequence proves to be so important for the film. Tonya knows she is talented, but the judges refuse to give her the scores she feels she deserves due to what she wears. One judge even tells her that they have been instructed to give her lower scores because figure skating does not want her as its face. Taking years of being told she is not enough, being called white trash, having her mother and husband abuse her, having her father leave her, and being generally mistreated, Tonya is able to channel her internal anger into her practice and execution of the daring triple axel. Perfectly building anticipation for the moment, generating thrills as she begins her routine, and then creating ecstasy as Harding lands the triple axel, I, Tonya chooses to zoom in on her face for the sequence. Grinning from ear-to-ear, clearly emotional, and staring off into the distance, Tonya is on the top of the world and feels for the first time as though she is enough. Accomplishing the triple axel is her plea to the world that she is enough and that she is worthy of love. At long last, there is something that cannot be taken away from Tonya that proves her talent and worth.
Though Tonya wishes to be loved, her eventual descent into becoming the person that America loves to hate is one that almost seems preordained. By her own admission, the abusive “love” she receives from her mother leads to her accepting abusive “love” from her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Even her mom sees this as a poor choice. By marrying the “first boy who called you pretty”, Tonya’s life is often maligned by her own choices. Though she may protest her innocence in everything she does – especially the Kerrigan attack – I, Tonya knows she is flawed. Her fractured upbringing fostered a very fractured woman who lashes out at her dedicated coach when things do not go her way, who fights with judges about what score she should get, who is fine with sending death threat letters to Nancy to psyche her out, who is prone to lose sight of the truth, and who chooses to associate with men like Jeff and Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) despite obvious signs of both being morons. Even if she is, at her very core, a decent person, her difficulty in making life choices makes her a classic case of somebody being destroyed by the company they keep. Her lack of foresight and often questionable morals make Tonya a woman who is deeply imperfect. The cracks in her exterior are on full display at every turn with her wearing these flaws as a badge of pride. As opposed to the pristine and perfect Nancy Kerrigan, it is not hard to see that Tonya was not destined to be the one who would be universally loved at first sight. She is an acquired taste, one who must be understood to be loved, and one who benefits greatly from hindsight. Thus, though the film shows her flaws, it embraces them. They are what define her and though she may be more responsible for how her life turned out than she will admit, Gillespie and Robbie successfully aim to not explain her actions, but to show what led to them. In doing so, they foster great sympathy, compassion, and understanding for this villainess that allows younger audiences to lament the injustice she suffered and for older audiences to reassess their prior opinions.
At the end of the film, as a judge sentences Harding to a ban from competitive figure skating, she pleads with him to send her to jail. Anything to let her continue skating. Anything to let her continue to have a direction in her life. Something that does not hurt her, but allows her to express herself as a person. It is all she knows. In a moment that, twenty four years ago, was one of relief for Americans who were satisfied to see the villain get her just desserts for her heinous attack on Nancy Kerrigan, I, Tonya successfully turns it into one of emotional distress. As Robbie breaks down crying, pleading her case, begging to go to jail, and slowly realizes that the judge is fully intent on sticking by his decision to ban her from figure skating for life, the film solidifies itself as a truly tragic story of how one lost young woman was left on her own to become one of the most reviled figures of the late 20th century.
Largely focusing on the story of Tonya’s life and all of the events that led to and come after the Kerrigan incident, I, Tonya does not spend much time focusing on universal ideas. However, the one it does focus upon is abuse. Tonya is abused from the very beginning of the film by her ruthless mother, accepts abuse from her husband because she feels she deserves it, equates abuse with being loved, and then accepts the abuse of the world in order continue to remain relevant after her figure skating ban. Her entire life is one in which she is abused by somebody because, to her, it is merely a sign that she is loved. It may be that they love to hate her, but it is love all the same in her eyes. An incredibly heartbreaking belief, I, Tonya is a film that hopes to show viewers that abuse is not love. Jeff and LaVona claim to love her, but they do nothing but hurt her and demonstrate they do not know the first thing about love. Tonya’s broken sense of self-worth may be briefly buoyed by her landing of the triple axel, but this is fleeting as she eventually settles back into her routine beatings at the hands of those she thinks she loves. Tragic and upsetting, the film serves as a desperate warning to value and love yourself even if others do not. Tonya’s chief flaw was continuously relying upon the validation of others to define her self-worth, instead of believing herself to be enough on her own. Thus, she winds up in a life – especially off-the-ice and after skating – where she accepts beatings and pain if it means somebody out there will love her.
All of this said, one of I, Tonya’s greatest strengths is its docudrama style. Capturing both the visual style of the era and the rather “low class” perception that dogged Tonya’s figure skating endeavors, this framing of the film allows it to truly probe Harding’s life and her associations in great detail while offering no definitive truths. Instead, this is a film in which truth matters very little, which the opening prologue and Harding’s closing quote come right out and state. Where the truth lies in this story is often quite ambiguous as stories contradict one another or as characters desperately seek to plead their innocence. Playing with this as Tonya recounts Jeff’s abuse only for Jeff to counter that he never hit her or as Jeff recounts Tonya’s violence as she counters that the scenes he described never actually happened, I, Tonya may favor Harding’s version of events but it never offers it as the gospel truth. As previously mentioned, this is a film that knows Harding is flawed. It offers reasons for why she is flawed: she certainly had a low sense of self-worth and a warped perception of the world. Thus, the stories she tells may or may not be true. Similarly, Jeff may be stupid, but it does not necessarily invalidate his own version of events. As LaVona chimes in or as ex-reporter Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale) tosses in his two cents, I, Tonya often muddies the water so much it is hard to tell which way is up. This certainly allows the film to focus on the character development it rides on, but it also allows it to perfectly capture the confusion, misunderstandings, and mysteries within one of the most captivating stories of the 1990s. Riding on this wave of ambiguity, I, Tonya becomes a film that proves quite spellbinding and intoxicating in just how it offers a behind-the-scenes interpretation of events that winds up being just as unclear as the known events.
One of the better elements of I, Tonya is certainly Craig Gillespie’s direction. As a film that relies heavily on comedy, the film could have easily slipped into becoming yet another modern film that was afraid to be serious. Fortunately, Gillespie deftly balances the two sides of the film. There are times to be funny and make fun of Shawn Eckhardt’s insistence he is a secret agent or mocking the cheese stains on his bare chest as he eats in the car, but there are times to focus on the emotional strain Tonya’s life journey is taking on her. It is a story that lends itself to comedy given just how dumb Jeff, Shawn, and Shawn’s “top operatives” are, with Gillespie smartly leaning into that to allow the film to be one of the funniest films released in 2017. Yet, the comedy is never forced. There are no jokes. It is pure deadpan comedy in which the characters are wholly unaware of just how funny what they are saying is to others. It is natural and in-character, as with many of the film’s dramatic turns. I, Tonya develops every edge of its characters to perfection, in large part due to Gillespie’s ability to balance the film’s comedy and drama. Both wind up serving the characters in their long-run, turning them from film characters to recognizably real people who drive at the motivations and personality of the people they are meant to capture.
It is this balance that allows I, Tonya to be the rare biopic to adequately cover its protagonist’s life while also spanning a significant proportion of her life. Despite detailing around 20 years of Harding’s life and balancing a variety of events and characters, the film always feels cohesive. Each life snippet flows nicely into the next event with Gillespie following the path that her life story dictates. He does not force the film to hop around, rather he allows each moment to lead into the next and the film’s natural flow is the end result. As a biopic, it has the daunting task of getting at who Tonya was while also delivering details on “the incident”, which is a task that Gillespie and I, Tonya easily accomplishes. The film leaves us entertained and heartbroken, but first and foremost, it leaves us with a greater appreciation of Harding, of figure skating, and of her struggles.
Dramatically, the film is quite strong when it comes to the figure skating sequences. As someone who does not have an interest in figure skating, this was one area that I was the most shocked by in the film. It is clear that Gillespie love figure skating and admire the skill level that goes into accomplishing what Harding did, capturing this passion and energy in the film’s figure skating sequences. As Tonya begins a routine with her music of choice playing in the background, it is not hard for the film to feel somewhat epic. The choreography of the moment perfectly playing into the music as Tonya dances, spins around, and jumps in the air. As the film builds up to the triple axel, shows her struggles with the judges, or shows her issues with her laces, Gillespie makes the film incredibly thrilling. Though the audience knows what will come, he has us hanging on every move. The film’s decision to play real footage further seals the deal, capturing the emotion and thrills of that moment.
Of course, the triple axel landing is greatly enhanced by the film’s choice of music. In figure skating, the choice of music is always essential as the skater does not just use a choreographed routine, but must feed off of the energy and notes of the music as part of their routine. Here, after she lands the triple axel, the film jumps into ‘Feels Like the First Time‘ by Foreigner, which is a great choice that truly amplifies the action and emotion. This continues throughout the film such as in the excellent sequence set to ‘The Chain‘ by Fleetwood Mac as Tonya deals with reporters after the Kerrigan incident, the build-up to the song perfectly setting the tone with the lyrics and vocals further serving the action and events unfolding. I, Tonya, from beginning to end, has a carefully curated soundtrack that never falters and always winds up benefiting the narrative. Just as the comedy, thrills, and drama, all serve their role, the film’s music fits right into place as I, Tonya serves as a brimming example of every key element of the film working in harmony with one another.
Acting is another source of strength with Margot Robbie’s powerful and emotional performance as Tonya Harding communicating the level of respect and admiration she has for her, bringing to life everything she is in a package that makes her entirely endearing. Allison Janney’s performance is undeniably showstopping as well, looming over much of this film with her bird husband (not a typo: see the film for yourself) and swear-heavy dialogue with considerable screen presence. Beyond them, Sebastian Stan, Julianne Nicholson, and Paul Walter Hauser, are all very strong as well, especially the relative unknown Hauser. Chewing up the scenery as the incredibly stupid Shawn Eckhardt, he perfectly captures the way in which he is severely disconnected from reality. However, the one part where the acting does slump is the portion of the film set when Tonya is just 15 years old. Relying on Robbie and Stan in this section, I, Tonya seems unaware of the fact that neither of its actors look remotely 15. Forcing both into rather rough dialogue for an adult to pull off convincingly, the scenes slack due to the poor casting that does, nonetheless, offer a brief blight on their respective performances.
A tragic, moving, revealing, and incredibly funny film from director Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya is certainly one of the surprises of the year. After spending 20+ years as one of the most infamous people in sports history, this contradictory and confounding film is one that successfully manages to paint Harding in a completely new light. A woman who refused to play by the rules set for her the figure skating association and daringly sticking by being who she is – no matter what others think – Harding is a woman who the news and history have done wrong. Though I, Tonya does not offer a definitive reading on her life as it admits there is so much misinformation out there that it is impossible to know where the truth lies, the film convincingly shows that the truth does not really matter. What does matter, however, is how this woman who wanted nothing more than to be loved was given nothing but abuse from everyone around her. At the end of the day, abuse is not love and this is the lesson I, Tonya brings to the forefront and uses to drive at the heart of why Harding is who she is and what led to her public downfall.