People in this generation have been desensitized by the luxury of waking up to shiny new fiascos across all forms of media all day, every day.
Scandals had a lot more staying power just a couple of decades ago with OJ Simpson’s prosecution in the summer of ’94 being crowned the trial of the century. That same year not even a few months before OJ, Tonya Harding was one of the the most hated people in the world.
“I, Tonya” recounts Harding’s life, leading up to the infamous attack on Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics. Based on multiple interviews with Harding, her ex-husband, her mother and more, the film is a tangled mix of their contradictory testimonies presented in a darkly comical way.
Running alongside the principal narrative are a series of fictional interviews providing commentary to the action. It’s an odd stylistic choice that I’m not entirely sure payed off, especially due to the additional inclusion of in-action, fourth-wall breaks during the main storyline. The past Harding could be on her way home from practice, turn around and make a winking joke at the audience, then appear as the present-day Harding just a few scenes later. These conflicting elements made one or the other seem redundant, and I was much more a fan of the fourth-wall breaks than the present-day commentary.
Regardless, Margot Robbie is great as Harding. For the monster the media has painted Harding to be, Robbie makes her unquestionably human. She’s incredibly easy to root for, as Robbie gives an empathetic, three-dimensional performance that excellently trades off between moments of fierce charm and raw human emotion, especially when she’s on the ice.
These ice-skating scenes are beautifully choreographed and directed. I was always mesmerized by Robbie’s dancing, which she did herself and the additional emotion written across her face with every leap and spin was joyous to behold.
Though Robbie and Allison Janney, playing Harding’s mother, may be getting all the awards buzz, it’s the Winter Soldier himself, Sebastian Stan, that steals the show as Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband. I thought Stan was capable enough before, but this performance shows he’s a truly talented actor I can’t wait to see more of. There’s an unsettling progression to Gillooly as he matures from a sniveling teenager into a smarmy, violent husband bent on securing Harding’s affection through whatever means possible.
The film ventures into some very dark territory involving domestic abuse, but there’s something comical about the way the characters argue over the details around what truly happened. At one point Gillooly accuses Harding of chasing him out of the house with a shotgun, but Harding shrugs it off like it never happened. Similarly the reverse is more believably noted of Gillooly beating her. These moments are horrific to watch, but they’re presented in a tongue-in-cheek way that never derails the tonal momentum of the film. Tasteful or not, even Kerrigan’s assault is effectively played for laughs.
“I, Tonya” is a very enjoyable film to watch, despite its suspect rendition of the true story. Harding is ultimately portrayed as a victim, which is true to an extent, but the factual details of the story are left to ambiguous interviews that make it hard to deduce what should really be taken from the film.
Should we believe Harding was aware of Kerrigan’s assault, that she was innocent, or is the film just a clever ruse on the many accused’s deceptive tendencies? Maybe the truth is relevant.
Hector Valverede is a culture reporter with the Daily Lobo. He primarily writes movie reviews. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @hpvalverde.