- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
On paper, you’d have to look awfully hard to find a less likely figure skating champ than Tonya Harding. In a sport full of some of the most privileged competitors in athletics, Harding was a working-class gal from the parts of Oregon that aren’t exactly “Portlandia.”
Where other skaters had sponsors, Harding had her (apparently abusive) stage mother who waitressed full-time, pushed Harding from preschool age and sewed her costumes. Where other skaters had loving partners (maybe) and classy entourages, Harding had her alternately sweet and abusive husband, Jeff Gillooly, and his idiot friends.
And skating isn’t like football or basketball or anything else with a score at the end and a clear winner or loser. Figure skating is a sport of deft angles and wild spins and ankle-breaking landings that are supposed to look as easy as walking.
Which is to say, it is a sport of judgment, which is often all kinds of subjective. According to Tonya Harding — the first American woman ever to land the seriously weird triple axel — nobody was ever judged harsher than Tonya Harding.
And consider this: All of the above was BEFORE the Incident.
You know … the Incident.
That thing where, in 1994, as everyone was prepping for the Winter Olympics, Harding’s moron associates smashed friend and skating rival Nancy Kerrigan in the knee, got caught, caused the oddest sports scandal in decades and instantly reduced Harding to talk-show-punchline status for the next 20-plus years.
Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”), writer Steven Rogers and a breakout Margot Robbie in the title role do a phenomenally entertaining job bringing all this to vibrant life, mixing biopic and documentary-style tropes, direct address, and split screen for a movie that sometimes seems as if it can’t believe it’s telling a true story, either. (Robbie, all of 3 or 4 when the Incident occurred, reportedly thought that Rogers had made all of this up and was blow away by his imagination.)
Also note the title card: “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly,” which is as good a warning as any as that the part-satirical, part-factual “I, Tonya” might have a flexible relationship with the truth if only because nobody’s stories entirely match up.
Anyway, from the jump, Harding’s chain-smoking mother LaVona (a brilliantly snake-like Allison Janney in a part written for her) pushed her, all but forcing a coach (Julianne Nicholson) to take her at 3 years old, which might have turned out OK if it wasn’t for Harding’s fondness for Gillooly, a local doofus several years her senior. Gillooly is played by Sebastian Stan, best known for running around and looking pained as the Winter Soldier in the Marvel movies — Stan looks absolutely thrilled to be doing a movie that doesn’t involve a green screen.
Some will blanch at the tone Gillespie and Rogers take now and then (and expect a bevvy of thinkpieces about it as soon as this thing opens wide). It is entirely possible Gillooly and LaVona (probably) beat the heck out of Harding (charges both deny, sort of), and it’s entirely possible Gillespie and Rogers can seem a little matter-of-fact about it.
But for the most part, Gillespie’s vibrant filmmaking matches the sheer insanity of the story, a tale which combines a sport that (by design) tends towards melodrama, a soupçon of class warfare and the rise of tabloid TV. Bobby Canavale’s “Hard Copy” reporter gets in the best line in the film, regarding the Incident: “The operation was done by two of the biggest boobs in a story populated SOLELY by boobs!”
Speaking of, the cast of “I, Tonya” never flags: Paul Walter Hauser is hilariously hypnotic as Harding’s “bodyguard” Shawn Eckardt, the slubby, heavy-lidded “mastermind” behind this idiocy, while Nicholson’s expression is pure I-can’t-believe-I-have-to-deal-with-these-folks-but-Tonya-is-worth-it.
But it’s Robbie’s show. Her Tonya Harding can go from an emotional whisper (OK, a dull roar) to a scream, and she charms by mixing relentless moxie with put-upon-ness that is alternately sympathetic and repellent. Say this for her: Even when she was beaten down, literally or by judges with a scorecard, Harding was always willing to get off the mat.