Written By: Nigel Asipa
After seeing I, Tonya i realised something. America loves polarising figures. Especially those who appear to have two distinct personalities to them. Not only does it keep these celebrities relevant (for better or for worse, usually worse), but the public wants to see the truth in these people. The profession or class these figures seem to represent how people ascertain power.
I had no clue of the incident (not a sports fan) which is probably one of the most controversial moments in the sports’ history. But it reminded me of the documentary from Ezra Edelman; O.J.: Made In America. The idea of a renowned figure at the height of their powers and well respected of their profession, could plummet hard and try and try again to remain in the public eye to achieve their own sense of truth.
The characters in director Craig Gillespie’s brash, hilarious, poignant take on the 1994 incident on Tonya Harding’s ice skating sports rival Nancy Kerrigan are all grasping for a certain kind of control over their lives. Not the most likeable of folks sure, but they all want the respect regardless of how unwholesome they seem to be.
Young Tonya Harding (McKenna Grace) is thrust into the world of figure skating by her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) to have her appetite for the sport satisfied. The trainer Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) doesn’t take beginners but is won over by Tonya’s aptitude on the ice even at the tender age of 4. Soon years after Tonya’s skills are more smooth and improved, but the relationship between her and her mother are anything but. LaVona is something of a beast; she won’t even let Tonya have a piss or any break for that matter.
Years on, tensions between the two only grow more volatile and strained. The father is no longer in the picture, and the once innocent girl we saw has become more crass and uneasy. Even with her technique and discipline on form, the judges don’t approve her flair or appearance; robbing her of a fair shot at the Olympics. In the meantime, she meets lowly mechanic Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the two strike up a romance that is at times sweet but just as rough at her relationship with LaVona. Frustratingly she remains by his side in the hope things will improve.
At the 1991 nationals in Minneapolis, she achieved the distinction of becoming the first women to complete a smooth landing of the triple axel (think Tony Hawk’s 900) and blows away everyone, raising the bar for skaters everywhere. Her competition with Nancy Kerrigan (although they were roommates once) grows intense, especially after placing 4th behind Nancy in the 1992 Olympics after a poorly replaced skate blade proved detrimental to her landings. Her bodyguard Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) and Jeff devise a plan that puts Tonya’s career as a world-class figure skater on the line.
In the eclectic, and mostly era-appropriate soundtrack, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘The Chain’ is used to echo the mockery, and misunderstanding Tonya endured with the lyric “if you never love me now, you’ll never love me again”. All she ever needed was to be loved and accepted where those closest to her failed her time and time again. Her mother ‘adjusted’ her into a champion, and even going back to when she brings young Tonya to the skating rink, she seemed for show. Similar to how Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman suffered psychological abuse from J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher in Whiplash, the violent tutoring had both Neiman and Harding tap into the peak of their potential but damaging relationships and themselves along the way.
The title itself is almost like Tonya, Jeff, Diane, LaVona and Shawn are in court. Swearing an oath to tell the truth and nothing but it, each becoming increasingly unreliable giving different accounts of what transpired between the mid 80’s to 1994. Each victimising or distancing themselves from the fault of the turmoil of it all. There’s some fourth wall breaking to draw us closer to the lunacy and hysteria that brings about some facepalming, WTF moments in this deliberate, honest/dishonest drama so take with it what you will.
Gillespie shoots with a Scorsese mindset with bold tracking shots, sharp editing team and uses quick camera push-ins to compliment the film’s brisk energy. It’s profane, has a blonde protagonist and the theme of guilt is a running thread through Scorsese’s resume. Even the track ‘Gloria’ by Laura Branigan was used in The Wolf Of Wall Street which also starred Robbie.
Robbie is simply dynamite as Harding. Shifting from uncontrollably defiant to devastatingly fragile, a scene where Harding is putting on her makeup just before the Olympics that’s almost unbearable to watch as she struggles to put on the hardest makeup; a brave smile. Putting her Harley Quinn role to a side, her disdain and distrust of everyone only vilified her further as the film is like one big middle finger to those who tried to attune her image.