As Mark Twain’s old saying goes, “Humor is tragedy plus time.” Sure enough, in the early months of 1994, the headlines were far from humorous–a star figure skater was violently attacked after a practice session, and her rival was accused of being as at least causally involved. Almost 25 years later, though, a feature film about the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding “incident” is one of the funnier (though darkly, darkly funny) films of the year.
I, Tonya is a complete blast, and though you may find yourself cringing, both at the subject matter and the fact that you’re laughing so hard, it’s worth every single second. Margot Robbie turns in an absolutely fantastic performance as Harding, serving as the co-emcee for the duration of the movie, along with Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband and co-conspirator (depending who you believe, that is); the movie opens by saying it’s “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” with the two of them.
We get our first glimpse of Harding at age four, as her garbage-mouthed, violently domineering mother LaVona (a spectacular Allison Janney) takes her to the local rink and practically horse-collars the local coach into training young Tonya. Sure enough, the little girl has talent, and it’s not long before she’s lighting up the skating circuit.
We’re along for the ride every step of the way, from when she first meets Gillooly as a teenager to the abuse she suffers, first at the hands of her mother and then from of Gillooly, all the way though the utterly mind-boggling idiocy of the lead-up to the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer.
Screenwriter Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) actually interviewed both Harding and Gillooly, and, when he heard their drastically differing accounts, decided to present both sides and let the audience decide for themselves which (if either) was more believable. And director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) takes the nut-job shenanigans and runs with them, breaking the fourth wall, cleverly interspersing the first-person interview clips, actual news footage, and the dramatized events—which are simultaneously completely unbelievable and just crazy enough to make you say, “Yeah, I can see that happening”. It’s a brilliantly eclectic film and one of the more captivating, clever ones of the year.
Robbie, who did much of her own skating, carries the movie, deftly walking the line between portraying Harding as a victim and an instigator; it’s a watershed moment in the her relatively young career (she has less than a dozen films under her belt), proving that she belongs in the same room as the best actors at work today. Janney, likewise, fires on all cylinders in what she called one of the most challenging roles she’s taken on. If the Academy handed out an award for Best Villain, she’d win it walking away; as it is, she’s pretty much a lock for Best Supporting Actress, having already taken the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards.
It may not be too terribly pretty to watch, but there’s no doubting that I, Tonya is a fascinating glimpse into a little tidbit of history that most people would have no problem forgetting or never talking about again. What the key (real-life) players lack, as far as anything resembling a redeeming quality, the people involved in the film more than make up for. Gillespie, Rogers, and the across-the-board stellar cast have made a masterpiece out of a mudpit.