I, Tonya (Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers) is a ground-breaking new film about the unstated class system in America.
I, Tonya is that rare movie that puts you, the audience, into the center of what the movie is about.
I, Tonya tells the story of what really happened when a world-class ice skater from the wrong side of the tracks had her main rival whacked, literally.
I, Tonya tries to do for film what Picasso did for art and William Faulkner did for the novel – to capture reality from more than one side, one point of view.
OK, this movie works on so many levels, every time I started to write this review, I kept changing it. So I decided to use all of them because that is what this movie is about: reality in all of its many dimensions.
The story is simple and one that many of you will remember. Tonya Harding (Margo Robbie) was a great American ice skating champion who was the first woman to do a triple axel (three and a half rotations) during a competition. Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) was a great American ice skating champion and in direct competition with Harding for the Ice Skating Champion of the 1994 Olympics. One day, coming from practice, Kerrigan is whacked in the knee by an unknown assailant.
What is not so simple is the world that Harding came from. Her mother (Allison Janney) is one of the great Dearest Mommy mothers ever portrayed in film. And she even hits Nancy with a hair brush. The more success Nancy has, the more her mother insists that it is because she pushed and slammed and even knifed Nancy to be the best.
When Nancy meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), she is only 15 years old, but she desperately needs someone to love her and Jeff is it. Sadly, he, too, cannot keep his slaps and punches to himself and worse, he is not too bright. When Nancy tells her mother that she and Jeff are going to be married, her mother advises, “You fuck dumb, you don’t marry dumb.”
Jeff has a friend who is even dumber than he is, Sean (Paul Walter Hauser). When Nancy gets a death threat just before the American championships, Sean suggests that they get back at Tonya’s biggest competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, by doing the same to her. From such stupid, small ideas comes a scandal that made tabloid news seep into mainstream news so that today, one cannot tell one from the other. In 1994, Tonya became the second most recognized person in the world behind President Bill Clinton.
The story is told by the major characters in interview format that is interspliced with action scenes of what is being described. Director Gillespie keeps switching the format so that we are constantly being thrown from one person’s reality to another’s. By the time we get to ‘the incident’ (and Harding tells us, OK, that is what you are all here for), we are not certain who to believe and what really happened. What we are certain about is our complicity in the circus that surrounded the tragedy of Harding’s life. As she tells us, she was abused all of her life and (looking straight into the camera) “lastly by you.”
The acting is some of the best you will see this year. Robbie is incredible. The makeup, the spectacular skating of Harding and, especially, the parental and spousal violence are so real that they make us understand more than ever that the movies are now at a stage where they can create reality, any reality, that they want to create. What is real becomes just as nebulous as what is true.
I, Tonya is about class, both as in classy and as in class status. Harding was from the wrong side of the tracks and her ‘class’ is not something she could hide any more than she could hide her ambition. As she continues to be the best female ice skater in America, but is never named the best by judges for the American Ice Skating Association, her frustration mounts until she finally confronts a judge in a parking lot who is visibly scared of her. He admits that her mediocre scores have nothing to do with her skating but rather they are because the Association does not want her to be the face of American Ice Skating.
In the irony to end all ironies, that is exactly what Tonya Harding becomes.
Director: Craig Gillespie
Writer: Steven Rogers