I, Terrified: A Look Inside the New Tonya Harding Flick
“America wants someone to love. But they also want someone to hate.” This is one of the final lines that Tonya Harding utters at the end of the searing new film I, Tonya. And boy, is Tonya Harding hated. Whether it is the press vilifying her for the Nancy Kerrigan incident, skating competition judges turning up their noses at her blue-collar chutzpah, or her own mother hurling a knife at her (you read that right), the relentlessly persistent Tonya just can’t seem to catch a break. We watch her struggle, struggle some more, and then fail in the most humiliating way imaginable. Elitism and the media are both at work to thwart Tonya’s dreams of becoming an Olympic gold medalist, and it is riveting to watch Harding brave these forces in pursuit of this goal. The cast and creative team of I, Tonya have taken this gripping American tale, and turned it into the year’s most timely, provocative new film.
For those of you who were living under a rock in the 1990s, let me tell you a little about Tonya Harding. Harding is a champion figure skater from Portland, Oregon of very humble beginnings. Her mother was a waitress, and she spent all her money and time helping Tonya become a world champion figure skater. And Tonya delivered: Harding is the first American woman to land a triple axel in a figure skating competition, and is a two-time Olympian, in addition to the many other figure skating prizes she won. What she is most known for, however, is the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan feud. Before the 1994 Winter Olympics, Tonya Harding’s husband Jeff Gillooly hired a hit man to injure Harding’s figure-skating rival, Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan’s knee was brutally injured, which threatened her participation in The Olympics and her coveted chance at winning a gold medal. What resulted from the incident was a giant media storm that involved the FBI, the IOC, and all of America watching on the edge of their seats. The 24-hour news cycle was just beginning and the media played up the incident to launch this new medium, and boost their ratings.
Director Craig Gillespie does a masterful job of capturing the film’s raw, working-class characters and setting, filling his movie with cheap cars, hunting rifles, rugged forest, and worn down houses. The film’s lighting and cinematography also have a stark, bare quality to them that shows the depression of the characters’ setting and inner-lives. In keeping with the simple setting, the tight script even has an unpretentious, casual tone: the characters often speak to the audience directly, tearing away any boundaries between the audience and the people on screen. In the same way that Harding broke the rules in figure skating, the device of the characters addressing the audience directly breaks the rules of non-documentary film. And this attention to detail is an example of the film’s brilliance.
Gillespie draws you into Tonya’s world where most women end up waitresses, college is out of reach, and the only way out is to become a world champion figure skater. Harding’s working class roots are her worst enemy throughout the biopic. Her homespun skating dresses, and routines skated to the music of ZZ Top turn off the elitist skating competition judges, who deem Harding’s “presentation” not up to snuff. The judges do not want a spunky working class girl being the face of American figure skating, and the judges score Tonya accordingly. Watching this movie, I could not help but think of East Coasters’ contempt for working class Americans, now collectively known as “the Trump voters.” There are so many opinions about white working class people, but such little effort to understand them. People make fun of working white class folks, calling them “red necks,” and “white trash.” There is such a taboo against people making fun of other oppressed groups such as African-Americans and LGBT people, so it is interesting that there is no taboo against making fun of people who do not have the same advantages as you or I. Especially since they have been subject to oppressive government and economic policies for years. This movie opened my eyes as to where working class people are coming from, and why they feel such contempt for people from the East Coast. Next time I meet someone with more conservative views than mine, and I am tempted to judge them, I will keep this movie in mind.
And it's the actors portraying these working class people who really make this film shine. Margot Robbie is sensational as Tonya Harding. I previously thought that it would be a stretch for an Australian beauty to play the blue-collar, American Harding, but Robbie plays her with complete authenticity. As Harding, Robbie is tough as nails, funny as hell, and also sweetly vulnerable. Most actors can only be one of these things on screen, but Robbie seamlessly incorporates all of these character traits into her performance. Robbie also successfully shows all of Harding's life phases: she plays her at fifteen, twenty-three, and at forty. She even portrays Harding's image change from rough and tumble girl to poised, elegant figure skater that Harding undergoes to appease the competition judges. Portraying this amount of range well on screen is unusual, and Margot Robbie deserves an Oscar nomination for pulling it off.
Allison Janney is also fantastic as Harding's blunt, abusive mother, Lavona Golden. Mama Rose has nothing on this woman: Lavona slaps, hits, and taunts Tonya throughout the film. But as twisted as their relationship is, you cannot help but feel the love Lavona has for her daughter. Although she is harsh, Lavona wants Tonya to be the best, so she can have a better life than her mother, and make something of herself. In one emotional moment, Janney says to Harding, "I made you a champion, knowing you'd hate me for it. That's the sacrifice a mother makes." Despite the cruelness of Lavona's behavior, her love for Tonya in this moment is palpable. That Janney is able to show this love in such a monstrous character is a testament to her giant acting talent. The range of Janney's performance is also incredible: one minute she is cracking a wry joke with a parrot on her shoulder, and the next minute she is hurling a knife at her innocent daughter. And Janney has the audience's rapt attention through it all. Janney's performance is a master class in acting, and anyone with any acting aspirations whatsoever should rush to see her in this movie.
All the other actors are perfectly cast. Sebastian Stan is earnestly sweet as Harding's husband Jeff Gillooly, Paul Walter Hauser is hysterical as Jeff's meathead friend Shawn, and Julianne Nicholson plays Harding's coach Diane with grace, dignity, and kindness. These supporting characters do a great job of showing the world from which Tonya comes, and bring great originality, and authenticity to the film.
No film will make you think more than I, Tonya this season. There are simply so many timely themes brought up throughout the movie. For instance, it brings up the issue of success in America. Tonya's lack of money, temperamental behavior, and blue-collar image all hold her back from receiving the awards she feels are her due. This film makes you realize that success is rarely just about talent, and so many random and unfair factors come into play when climbing to the top of any profession. The film also deals with the idea of truth. Every person in the film has a different version of events when it comes to the Nancy Kerrigan incident. Characters even do things in the film, and then later deny them when they are being interviewed. With fake news, unreliable journalism, and lying politicians running rampant in our society, no topic is more relevant or timely.
Also discussed is the steep price of being a media news punch line. Toward the end of the film, Tonya looks at the audience, and says, "I thought being famous would be fun. But being America's punch line was like being abused all over again. And you were my abusers." It is rare to have the protagonist of a movie directly speak to the audience, and this device created a chilling, surreal effect that inspired great guilt in the audience. The writer thus made the audience a character in the film, and created a unique dynamic between the viewer and the artists telling the story.
I, Tonya is one of the finest, most timely films of the year. It brings the issues of class, truth, and media to the forefront in a way that feels seamless and effortless. The film introduces characters that you want to hate, but makes you fall in love with them by showing their humor, dreams, regrets, and deep humanity. We can all learn from I, Tonya to be less judgmental of those different than us, and that there are always many sides to the same story. It is up to us to open up our minds and hearts, and listen.
Note: The quotes included in this review are paraphrases of what is actually said in the film. The writer did not have a hardcopy of the script at his disposal when writing, and did his best to recreate the exact lines spoken in the film.
© 2018 Mark Nimar