I’d often wondered, as I suffered through the adonized drama of reality shows that featured children, how on earth did their parents put them through the torture of long hours of shooting that were undoubtedly preceded by rehearsals, make-up, and all the guff that comprised these TRP-chewing monsters. To me, anything seemed equitable so long as there was drama and enough tantalizing weepiness that kept the viewers hooked. (If you noticed that everything in this opening was in the past tense, there was a good reason why. And if you guessed that it was because I swore off such shows, you were right.)
It might be a circuitous connect, but I, Tonya rather zippily puts you in the front seat of the real life story of Tonya Harding, figure-skater who is, when a three-year old, in the 1970s, pushed onto the ice-rink by her acidic and ambitious mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), right into the tutelage of an initially unwilling coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson). Director Craig Gillespie uses a documentary-interview-real-estate breaking technique (in which the actors look at you amidst the most dramatic moments to talk to you – oh, how I loved Kevin Spacey when he did this in The House of Cards, before he self-destructed his own career into abusive smithereens) to move this compellingly entertaining movie forward.
Harding was, in real-life, the first American ever to complete the triple-axel spins in succession. But that isn’t the crux of the drama here, it’s what happened off-rink that held the world’s attention, and what the movie eventually plays out in its Rashōmon-style unravelling. Director Gillespie employs a clipping pace to show Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie, who also co-produced this project) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) talking in their interviews, and what happened, strictly from their point of view, that led to the Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) incident. Kerrigan being Harding’s core competitor for a spot in the Olympic team, the former a hotsy-totsy shoo-in as far as the local judges are concerned, compared to the rough-at-the-edges and loud-at-the-hems latter.
But the movie’s also more than that incident which not just irredeemably destroyed Harding’s career and life, but also a look at what makes a public figure what they are – what defines their behavior, how they react to the harsh arc-light of fame and what they’re willing to do to stay there or course ahead, and how jaundiced and prejudiced judges can do their bit to make the pot even more pernicious. In Harding’s case, if you do believe the director and writer Steven Roger‘s POV – though they claim to have presented both sides, there’s no doubt whose side they are on here – Harding’s life was a cauldron waiting to overflow and singe her irreparably.
And if all this feels like an overtly dramatic venture where you think you’ll need to keep a couple of tissues ready, junk that box. For, Gillespie takes the story into a black, comic spin, and more often than not, shocking you and smashing your senses into gasps, even as you laugh uncontrollably and despite yourself. I, Tonya is undeniably entertaining, even as it boots up its darkly comic look with a blade that cuts right into you and illuminates the tenebrous corners that a talent might have to get bruised in to get their place in the center-spotlight. In Harding’s case, she faces abuse and violence at every nook and corner of her emotional space – her mother throws knives at her and slaps her; her boyfriend-who-becomes-husband smashes her face into mirrors, and she herself emerges acerbically competitive and angry, her place on the podium her raison d’être. Ironically, Harding’s downfall isn’t something she plots herself – that is an accident too, and it’s her husband, Gillooly’s, goofily delusional friend, Shawn Eckhardt (a fabulous Paul Walter Hauser) who ultimately cracks Harding’s life that’s skating on thin ice – and this involves double-crossing and a rapidly escalating madness that’s nothing short of breathless roulette on the skating rink.
The cast is inspired all around – Margot Robbie is splendid, having trained to ice-skate for over six months for this project- carrying on despite a herniated neck disc – her act a ratcheting energy of frustration and focus, fulminating into despair, something that cannot but touch you and burn you some. As Tonya’s mother, Allison Janney is inspired, cussing, smoking, and even bravely perching a bird on her shoulder during the interviews – and her interviews are one of the highlights – smartly funny, provocative, irresistibly jagged and blunt, and a whiplash of dialogue delivery, just as the rest of Janney’s presence is. Sebastian Stan is superb too, as his character struggles with his own ghosts, his escalating violence, and his desperate act to keep Tonya with him.
Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis delivers stunning scenes with editor Tatiana S. Riegel, with music supervisor Susan Jacobs curating songs from the 70s that add undeniable zing and drama to the proceedings. The songs are part of the story too – ranging from Cliff Richard‘s Devil Woman (when the three-year old Tonya takes her first sure steps toward stardom), to Bad Company, Dire Straits, Marshall Tucker Band, and Super Tramp – note the camera work and editing when the last said band’s Goodbye Stranger plays to Tonya leaving Gillooly’s house – the camera moves from inside her room, across the house, catching the latter in its movement, out the door, out the pathway, on the road, and magically and smoothly as if on the back of a car, as it speeds away, the house receding rapidly. The ice-skating routines are breathtakingly shot, the camera making you part of the scene, careering across the rink, into the judges faces, pulling back, cutting into Tonya, skidding away from her, then ramming right close to her – simply mind blowing stuff, this.
I, Tonya will make you laugh, shock you, and make you cringe. And then, leave you with a hopeless feeling of a life and talent wasted – and you realize as you tune in to the next reality show featuring kids – amidst this tantivy to economic freedom and societal status-dom, it is the reality behind the camera, underneath the facade and the struggles, that really and truly bites.
I, Tonya is rated R (Sexual content, Graphic nudity, violence, and language)
Director Craig Gillespie Running Time 2h
Writer Steven Rogers
Stars Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney
Genres Biography, Comedy, Drama
Watch the trailer of I, Tonya here: