Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser
Director: Craig Gillespie
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.39:1
Studio: Universal Studios
Features: See Review
Length: 119 minutes
Release Date: March 13, 2018
“I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline.”
Tonya Harding…did you know she was the first American female skater to land a triple axel in international competition? Did you know she remains one of only 8 female skaters EVER to successfully land that most difficult of jumps?
Don’t feel bad if you didn’t. I certainly did not. Like many who lived through the 1992 Winter Olympics, we only knew one thing of Tonya Harding: she had rival Nancy Kerrigan whacked in the knee to try and take her out of the competition.
Or did she? In the early days of the 24-hour news cycle, with hours of programming to fill (and the term “fake news” not yet on the horizon), we followed this soap opera like starving wolves. Every detail, every insinuation, every theory. We watched the figure skating in those Olympics in droves; most of us never caring about the sport before or since. We wanted to see good vs. evil on the ice.
But what of Tonya Harding? Barely kept on the United States team, she came in 8th, and then proceeded to be banned from the sport for life. Justice, or just another piece of meat tossed out for “just us”?
I, Tonya dares to look at the incredible circus of her life, using real-life modern interviews with all involved to piece together her uniquely American story. American in multiple ways, including how a poor girl with nothing became a legend, and then became a joke.
It tells the tale of a girl who wanted to skate from 4 years old. Her overbearing mother (Janney, in her Oscar-winning role) sacrificed and browbeated her kid all her life. Abuse was both mental and physical, but it was the mother’s misguided attempt to toughen her up.
Tonya (the amazing Robbie) grew up strong, athletic, and unashamed of her poor-girl routes. She swore, smoked, drank, and refused to be the vision of regal grace judges demanded…outskating all of her competition and earning scores that never quite showed that.
She hooked up with awkward Jeff Gillooly (Stan) and married him, and the cycle of abuse continued. If Tonya had a chip on her shoulder, the world certainly put it there.
She was friends with skater Nancy Kerrigan…so what went wrong and led to the “incident”; as everyone in the film refers to? It wasn’t quite as cut and dried as it was originally presented.
Basically, an idea of Jeff’s to wage psychological warfare on Kerrigan led to his friend and “bodyguard” of Tonya (Hauser) to take matters a step further. Critics are right when they say most of the movie resembles the final act of Goodfellas. It also has some Fargo feel thrown in…these are people far too inept to plan and commit a crime, but it didn’t stop them.
Kerrigan went down, but returned, and in the meantime the FBI got closer and closer to the truth. Did Tonya know about it? Was she involved? At the time, she blamed Jeff, while Jeff blamed her. Now, Jeff admits that she was never involved…a bit too late for the now middle-aged skater who loved one thing in life and lost it forever, all for being in the company of some major incompetents.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you might be expecting a comedy or a cult movie in the making, and yes, there are a few laughs. But the laughs are in the service of a tragedy. As Tonya dryly tells us, we were ALL her attackers. She has a point…and she earns the right to accuse in this movie.
As Tonya’s life was destroyed, we moved on to bigger and better things. O.J. Simpson was beginning his run on 24-hour news. Tonya did what she could, including female boxing, to try and eke out whatever was left of her damaged and ridiculed celebrity.
This is an amazing movie that pulls no punches. Margot Robbie’s embodiment of Tonya Harding is perfection. My favorite moment (one that earned a laugh in the trailer): getting ready to make her final Olympic skate, she stares at the camera and overdoes her rouge. She then smiles broadly; painfully. Out of context, it looks like something from Mommie Dearest. By the time we reach the moment in the movie, however, it’s absolutely devastating.
So what was it, really? The media told us what she was, and we believed it…did Tonya make it easy simply by being herself? Would we have bought into it if she had been the one hobbled and those around Nancy Kerrigan was to blame? Is there something in us that just likes to put people up on pedestals only to gleefully knock them down again?
It’s a lesson I think we’re only beginning to wake up to, and far too slowly to probably prevent the next occurrence. Some see I, Tonya as a comedy or a farce. I see it as the ultimate American cautionary tale; not for the subject matter, but for the audience.
Universal has done a remarkable job bringing this movie to high-definition life. The skating is fast, and the colors on and off the ice are remarkably clean and balanced. Images are sharp and well-defined throughout, with no bleeding or artifacting.
The dialogue itself sometimes lends the dynamic range to this uncompressed audio track, but apart from that, there is the sounds of the ice, and a terrific song score of great tunes from the 70s and 80s. This is a real pleasure to listen to!
The extras include a director commentary track, several deleted scenes and trailers, plus 5 solid featurettes on the performances, the story, and the effects (the famed triple axel especially).
I wonder what the real Tonya Harding would say about I, Tonya? Too little too late, probably. But that doesn’t stop this from being an amazing, insightful, moving, funny and thoroughly entertaining thought-provoking work. Highly recommended.