A Tragic Comedy, by Bob Connally

21 Jan

Like a great many of you I remember the saga of Tonya and Nancy well. From a young age I got very into the Olympics and as an 11-year old in early 1994 I looked forward to watching the U.S. hockey team, bobsledding, skiing, and most of all seeing if Dan Jansen could win the speed skating Gold which had long eluded him amidst personal tragedy. But in the weeks leading up to the Lillehammer Games there was only one story anyone was talking about. America’s figure skating sweetheart, Nancy Kerrigan, had been viciously attacked, clubbed in the knee after a practice. I’d wager virtually every American who was above the age of 8 in 1994 has that raw video footage of her sitting on the floor crying, “Why, why, why?” indelibly burned into his or her memory. Memory, though, is a funny thing. Beyond that I would say few of us remember many of the details of what happened next, other than learning of rival skater Tonya Harding’s connection to Kerrigan’s attacker, Kerrigan going on to a medal (Silver as it turned out) and yes, Tonya Harding crying over her shoelaces on the world’s biggest stage. It seems I don’t remember it that well after all. The people involved do though. Well, their own versions of it anyway.

When I, Tonya arrives at “the incident” at about its halfway point, an aggravated Tonya (Margot Robbie) acknowledges to us she knows that’s what we all came to see. But without knowing what brought Tonya and her on again, off again husband Jeff Gillooly (the Winter Soldier himself, Sebastian Stan) to that point, Craig Gillespie’s (Lars and the Real Girl) film would simply serve to remind us about that weird news story that the world obsessed over through the opening months of 1994 and accomplish little else. Instead, I, Tonya is a riveting, darkly funny account of the sad early life of the first American woman to successfully execute a triple axel in competition and how she ended up being hated the world over.

From the start, Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers (Hope Floats) tell us that the film we’re about to see is based on the often conflicting accounts of Harding and Gillooly. It is very much to the filmmakers’ credit that they are able to make even the more outlandish moments in I, Tonya (and there are plenty of them) feel plausible. We may never know who, if either of them, is telling the truth about a particular moment in their story, but nothing seems off the table.

It would be difficult for even the most hardened Tonya Harding detractor not to feel some measure of sympathy for her when seeing how her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) treated her from childhood well into adulthood. Like the proverbial “little league dad” multiplied by 11, to say LaVona was impossible to please doesn’t even scratch the surface. While she pours nearly every cent she earns as a waitress into Tonya’s training as a figure skater, it doesn’t seem to be out of love so much as out of a desire to be able to hold it against her. LaVona justifies her relentless emotional and occasionally physical abuse as being what has driven Tonya to greatness. “You should be thanking me,” she bitterly spits at her daughter.

This abusive relationship leads to Tonya justifying the punches thrown by her teenage boyfriend, Jeff. “My mom hits me and she loves me,” Tonya tells us. Through the volatile ups and downs of their relationship and Tonya marrying Jeff at 19, she continues to become one of the finest figure skaters in the world. But as a self-proclaimed “redneck,” Tonya’s attitude doesn’t fit with the image U.S. Figure Skating wants to present to the world and they punish her for it at competition after competition. Still, by becoming the first American woman to land a triple axel (the mechanics of which are explained in breathtaking detail) at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1991, the disapproving judges can’t keep her out of the Olympics.

After a respectable performance at the 1992 Games, Tonya is ready to come on with a vengeance in ’94. But an anonymous death threat against her in the days leading up to the qualifying competition sets the part of the story we all know into action.

I, Tonya is the kind of movie that could have gone wrong in so many ways. A dark but sensitive dramedy that sympathizes with one of the most reviled American celebrities of our own lifetimes is, to put it mildly, a tricky proposition. It takes filmmakers and a cast who all know exactly what movie they’re making, which when it’s this specific can be difficult to do. But armed with Rogers’ strong, insightful, and very funny script, Gillespie gets his excellent cast working in concert.

Robbie brilliantly conveys the strength and vulnerability of Tonya Harding in a performance that lets us see the infamous skater in a different light without simply absolving her of her involvement in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. It’s one of the great performances of 2017 and one that will be remembered for a long time to come. As Tonya’s mother, Janney is well, she’s Alison Janney. When is she not amazing? The ever present cold look of disdain and disapproval for everyone and everything- mainly her own daughter- will stay with you long after the film. A surprising highlight in the cast though is the relatively unknown Paul Walter Hauser as Jeff’s best friend turned bodyguard for Tonya, Shawn Eckhardt. Eckhardt’s hilariously absurd lies about his background as “an expert on terrorism trends and profiles” were immortalized on ABC in an interview with Diane Sawyer. As Eckhardt, Hauser is howlingly funny in a performance that fits perfectly into the film around him. Every time he was on screen I couldn’t stop smiling. Hauser’s a breakout star.

Like the film equivalent of a perfectly executed triple axel, I, Tonya is one of the riskier movies of 2017 as well as one of the most impressive. It’s funny, thought provoking, and emotionally resonant.

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