I, Tonya

Here’s the thing that has always bothered me about the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan situation: There’s a classist element at work here.  Harding was very much stereotyped both by the powers that be who were running her sport and then by the press and society at large.  Everyone went with the easy lazy narrative of a bit of trailer park trash with her low rent crew of yahoos in tow invading the purview of the ice princesses and blundering around, ruining everything for everyone.

The truth is undoubtedly more complicated.  Let me say that I, Tonya is a movie and therefore not the truth either, but it does present a little more of Tonya’s side of the story than we got on TV news and hints at that complexity.  For one thing to get to the Olympics in any sport takes a level of talent and dedication to hard work that most of us don’t understand.  Tonya Harding, here played by Margot Robbie, achieved that twice.  What’s more, to do it she overcame a deprived background with a mother, LaVona Golden, played by Allison Janney, who while paying for skating lessons and sewing the outfits, never let Tonya forget it, never offered anything but negative criticism both on and off the ice and hit her repeatedly.  To assert her independence Tonya married Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan, who also did that last thing.  The marriage didn’t last.  And we all know what he did to try and get her back.

The film covers Tonya’s life from age three when she proved to be a prodigy on the ice to the “incident” in 1994.  For the film they interviewed Tonya, LaVona, Jeff, and others and then recreated the interviews with the actors playing them using actual words from the interviews.  Snippets of these are interspersed throughout the film.  Also occasionally characters will break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera.  These are hardly new or innovative techniques but they are used to good effect here, moving along a plot that most people are already well acquainted with.

They do use the easy lazy narrative some in depicting the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.  Jeff and his buddy Shawn Eckhardt, played by Paul Walter Hauser are played pretty broadly in those scenes and the movie feels like an early Guy Ritchie film.  Eckhardt, in particular is played as a nerd with a rare talent for self-delusion who seems to actually believe that he is a hyper-competent international assassin.  According to the film he is the one responsible for elevating the plot from a simple psychological dirty trick to an out and out assault.  But all of them were in a sense culpable.

All of the performances are excellent but Margot Robbie and Allison Janney deserve special mention.

I, Tonya is a film that is hard to love, mostly because the main character is prickly and flawed.  And that’s the point.  Tonya Harding was never able to hide or smooth out her rough edges and she had the misfortune to be talented in a sport that is made up of many subjective criteria, where the ideal is pretty, well-behaved and proper princesses like Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill.  That ideal just wasn’t inside Tonya Harding and she suffered for it.  Both in her sport and in life.  At one point in the movie she approaches one of the judges and asks, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?”  He doesn’t have a good answer.

Tonya brought a lot of her troubles on herself, namely by not taking responsibility for her mistakes.  She’s constantly saying, “It’s not my fault.”  Often it actually is but sometimes it isn’t.  Our media crazed world tries to fit people into easy lazy narratives, and when they won’t go easily they are cast as villains or objects of ridicule.  There is a point in the interview segments where Tonya says to the audience, “You now are my abusers.”  It’s a provocative point and I don’t think it’s true.  But it is easy to see how she could feel that way.


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