Lest you have forgotten, or perhaps are too young to remember, let’s revisit: Nearly a quarter of a century ago, way back in 1994 (January 6, to be precise), a figure skater named Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted just above the knee with a baton by a person hired by the ex-husband of another figure skater, Tonya Harding. But also, this happened: Everyone went bat-shit crazy about it. The media quickly and mercilessly spun the story of a sweet girl next door getting beat up by poor white trash. Their shorts program at that year’s Olympics was one of the most watched telecasts in American history. Kerrigan got a silver medal and Harding ended up pleading guilty (but only to the charge of hindering the investigation). She was stripped of her championship title and banned from the sport. And everyone went on to the next frenzy.
You can probably tell by the title that writer Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie have absolutely zero interest in hearing both sides of the story (Kerrigan is seen but utters not a word, just a shriek). Which is perfectly fine, because none of the key players – Harding (Robbie), her then-husband Jeff Gillooly (Stan), and bodyguard Shawn Eckardt (Hauser) – can seem to agree on anything anyway. The film immediately strikes a tone of defiance and does not let up for two exhilarating and wildly entertaining hours.
A skater since she was 3 years old, Harding is barely supported and often abused by her mother LaVona (Janney, having a blast sucking down More cigarettes and playing a despicable bitch). The foulmouthed skate-mom sees her daughter’s talent as a way out of poverty, and when not using assault as a motivator, she employed the method of reverse psychology, paying people in the crowd to mock her child before she performed. Teen Tonya eventually trades LaVona for Gillooly, another abusive asshole who ended up sending her career down the toilet. Did I mention this is a comedy?
I, Tonya is a riveting piece of cinema, successfully utilizing all the things that screenwriters are supposed to avoid: voiceovers, direct address, unreliable narrators. It also looks gorgeous, thanks to cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis and production designer Jade Healy. The skating sequences are shot with the usual verve, all low angles and sweeping crane shots, and the film moves constantly to the thrumming rhythm propelled by the soundtrack (I’ll concede the zillionth use of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” because we’re also treated to ZZ Top’s “Sleeping Bag”). Robbie tears into the role with glee, morphing from an awkward teenager to a cyclone of talent and fury, and the supporting players are perfectly cast, particularly Nicholson as Tonya’s coach and Cannavale as a Hard Copy reporter.
A brutally honest and caustic treatise on the meaninglessness of truth and identity in a media landscape that can only see in binary, I, Tonya starts with a cough and ends with bloody spittle. Tonya Harding may have been abused by her mother, her husband, the media, and the public, but with this electrifying redress, she gets the last laugh.
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