Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Every once in a while a story comes around that is so crazy, so absurd, so unbelievable that the truth becomes difficult to ascertain. I, Tonya is about a story like that. And it knows it. Director Craig Gillespie uses that quality to create a tremendously entertaining film that plays with the idea of truth until it comes up with its own.
Everyone who was older than about ten in 1994 knows who Tonya Harding is. She was a championship level figure skater who gained worldwide notoriety when she was implicated in an attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan during Olympic qualifying and was eventually banned from the sport forever. I, Tonya tells the whole story, from Harding’s childhood all the way through the incident, based mainly on the testimony of Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. It tells their sometimes contradictory tales in a straight-faced, satirical, and occasionally very funny film. The performances are good (especially Margot Robbie in the lead), but this is really a triumph of writing.
The screenplay, by Steven Rogers, brilliantly follows the outline of a traditional sports biopic. But, while it definitely tells Harding’s life story, it does so with a smirk on its face. Rogers, Gillespie and their stars (Robbie (who co-starred as A.A. Milne’s wife in the biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin) as Harding, Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe) as Gillooly and Allison Janney (from the CBS sitcom Mom) as Harding’s mother) understand the craziness of this story.
They also take what could have been a huge detriment and turn it into a fascinating positive. According to this film, not only do Harding and Gillooly disagree about key events, Harding takes no responsibility for any of her mistakes. I, Tonya uses these discrepancies to question the very idea of this story having one definitive truth. Does it really matter how everything actually went down as long as everybody is okay now?
As we follow Tonya’s story, from her childhood with her abusive mother to her marriage to Gillooly, including all her ups and downs as a figure skater, the film intersperses interviews with the actors as their characters looking back on these events. That is where all the denials come in. I cannot even count how many times one of the characters says some variation of “that never happened,” “Tonya is exaggerating” or, Tonya’s favorite, “it wasn’t my fault.” There is absolutely no personal responsibility on display among any of these people. I, Tonya makes this clear, but never goes out of its way to mock these people. It lets their words and alleged actions speak for themselves. And that is where the humor comes from.
This is helped immensely by the cast, who never, in any way, show that they are in on the joke. Margot Robbie is great as Tonya Harding. She was an incredibly skilled skater, but never learned the crowd, and especially judge, pleasing aspect of the sport (much to the consternation of her coach, Diane Rawlinson, played by Julianne Nicholson). Robbie is very effective at showing a woman who terrified the skating world with her “what you see is what you get” attitude, while feeling completely helpless in her relationships with the two most important people in her life. Both of whom, she claims, were verbally and physically abusive. As shown here, she is a woman who felt like the world’s punching bag and her only defense was to swing back as hard as she could.
Tonya’s attitude was encouraged and facilitated by her mother, LaVona. As played by Allison Janney, she is a mean woman who wanted her daughter to be great and felt like the only way she could get there was by being repeatedly smacked around and told how worthless she was. Looking for love, Tonya ran into the arms of the first person who showed her even the tiniest amount of affection. This turned out to be the dangerously insecure Gillooly. Sebastian Stan plays him as slightly buffoonish. Due to his abusive and controlling behavior, he is constantly in danger of losing Tonya. That mindset is what led to the incident, which is related in great detail in the film’s final stretch.
This is all told with a darkly comedic tone in a movie that seems more interested in exploring the truth as the key players (especially Tonya) see it than in being a traditional biopic. I, Tonya (113 minutes, plus a few minutes of vintage footage over the end credits) is a fast-moving film that tells its story with wit and a surprising amount of insight. It shows the true story according to Tonya. She would probably say that is the only truth that really matters.
4¼ out of 5
Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding
Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly
Allison Janney as LaVona Golden
Paul Walter Hauser as Shawn
Julianne Nicholson as Diane Rawlinson
Bobby Cannavale as Martin Maddox
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Written by Steven Rogers