Warning: May contain spoilers.
The latest based-on-a-true-story movie to hit Beaumont’s screens is “I, Tonya,” the sordid tale of Olympic ice-skating gone bad.
Tonya Harding, wonderfully played by Margot Robbie, is not your typical waif-like, adorable teenager that one normally sees on the ice. She is muscular and athletic, with a somewhat abrasive personality.
The movie, based on interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, intersperses the action with confessional-type monologues. They offer insights into the characters’ motivations, with Tonya’s mother LaVona Golden, played by Allison Janney, cutting a particularly obnoxious figure reminiscent of a cold-blooded, chain-smoking pirate complete with a bird on a her shoulder.
In another world, “I, Tonya,” would be an inspirational story. Poor girl lifts herself up through hard work and the sacrifices of a loving mother to become a champion. However, this ain’t that world and this ain’t that kind of movie.
LaVonda never misses a moment to remind Tonya of that sacrifice, often with a good backhander. Her “loving support” is abusive both physically and mentally. As a result, Tonya falls for the first person to show her any kind of affection, the gormless Gillooly, played with the required dimness by Sebastian Stan.
As Tonya rises through the ranks, she is repeatedly beaten — not in competition on the ice, but by Gillooly (one of those I-love-you-too-much scenarios), as well as her mother and the whole U.S. skating hierarchy.
In many ways, she is inspirational. She fights the authorities who think she doesn’t fit the right image (and skating, with its subjective scoring is ripe for bias), she makes her own outfits — she literally fights her way to the pinnacle of the sport.
In today’s world, she would not have the financial hardships. The Olympics allowed professional athletes to compete in 1986, and today an elite athlete would have a team of handlers to give them the best chance at a medal. Poor Tonya didn’t have that opportunity.
Ultimately, this is a tale of stupidity. Gillooly and Shawn Ekhardt, Gillooly’s friend and Tonya’s bodyguard, hatch a plan of “psychological warfare” to distract her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, prior to Olympic qualifying, but things do not go as planned.
Ekhardt, wonderfully played by Paul Walter Hauser, is a complete idiot. A self-proclaimed counter-espionage expert, he is a cartoon character — amazingly, he actually is an idiot in real life, as anyone who saw the interviews at the time can attest. Hauser’s portrayal is marvelous, all sweat and self-delusion.
Director Craig Gillespie does a marvelous job keeping the story moving along, with an undercurrent of black humor, and the ice skating sequences are brilliantly done, with the camera swirling around Harding as she pulls off the triple axel. The look on her face as she lands and hears the cheers is priceless. For this one moment, at least, she is loved, and Robbie’s face is a picture of triumph.
Did Harding know about, what the characters all call, “the incident?” The film leans toward her not knowing about the initial plan, but she was complicit in the cover up.
At the time, Kerrigan was the portrayed as a victim and became more of America’s sweetheart, while Harding became the villain, and “I, Tonya” has been accused of trying to make audiences feel sorry for her.
But we should feel sorry for her in some ways. We see the “support system” she was surrounded with and it is hard to see how things could have turned out any other way.
Make no mistake, “I, Tonya” is a movie about class. She didn’t have the right image. She was not from the right sort of family. Therefore, she didn’t fit into the skating club. Instead of being heralded for her skill — and make no mistake, Harding was world-class — she was forced to fight every step of the way. Unfortunately, she lacked both the education and the guidance to make the right choices.
Harding is a tragic figure, a victim of her own poor choices to be sure, but tragic nonetheless.
“I, Tonya” is a black comedy populated thoroughly unlikeable characters, but it also has a heart. When the world encourages you to be a fighter, we can’t complain when it gets a little bloody. Harding is the villain the world wanted, unluckily for her, but lucky for us, it makes for a terrific film.
“I, Tonya” is rated R.