I, Tonya: ’90s Nostalgia-Fueled Docudrama

Turns out talent and hard work might not be enough to succeed in this faux-docudrama based on the life of former competitive figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya (2017). Written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya stars Margot Robbie in the titular role. The film re-creates interviews with the principal characters involved in a controversial attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan in 1994.

Gillespie is a veteran director with several films and television episodes under his belt, so it comes as no surprise I, Tonya is competently handled. Rogers is mainly known for writing romantic comedies, so this film is quite a departure from his usual repertoire. Like the directing, the writing is solid but the fact it’s based on actual interviews and recordings probably made it easier.

Tonya Maxene Harding (Margot Robbie) grew up in poverty in Portland, Oregon. Her overbearing mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), pressured her into ice skating at a young age, eventually taking her out of school to pursue a career in the sport. In 1991, she became the first woman to successfully execute two triple axels in a single competition. She married Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) as a teen and their relationship quickly became abusive. Meanwhile, Gillooly’s friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), appointed himself as her unofficial body guard.

Harding finished fourth in the 1992 Winter Olympics and went home to be a waitress, where Coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) convinced her to begin training for the 1994 Winter Olympics. Gillooly, now her ex-husband, allegedly concocted a plan with Eckhardt to intimidate Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). Eckhardt hired two hapless thugs to smash Kerrigan’s knee. The event became a media sensation, resulting in Harding being banned from competitive ice skating.

I, Tonya says surprisingly little about Nancy Kerrigan, though roughly half the film is devoted to the assault and its aftermath, and attempts to portray Tonya Harding as just as much a victim. It goes to great lengths to contrast Harding’s hard-scrabble persona and background with Kerrigan’s “girl-next door” image, suggesting the judges were biased against Harding because of her background. In real life, however, Nancy Kerrigan also grew up in poverty. Her father sometimes worked three jobs and drove a Zamboni at a local ice rink in exchange for her skating lessons.

Toxic relationships in this film mean motivations are always suspect. The characters use and abuse each other in pursuit of their self interest, despite insisting they’re acting selflessly or out of love. To add to this moral ambiguity, Tonya Harding’s character tells the audience there is no “truth,” only what’s true for each individual. Only there was truth; Nancy Kerrigan really was assaulted with a baton. Shawn Eckhardt really was delusional and a pathological liar. There were consequences for these realities that Tonya Harding had to live with for the rest of her life.

So there’s constant tension between events re-created in the film and those that occurred in real life, something that characters call attention to by breaking the forth wall. This is a clever way to address a common problem with movies based on real people and events. Filmmakers frequently alter events or simply invent things in order to make a compelling story. I, Tonya tells its audience: this is true, according to a particular perspective.

I, Tonya is a clever and creative take on an infamous incident from the 1990s. I doubt many people under the age of 25 have ever heard of Tonya Harding or Nancy Kerrigan, but for people alive at the time, this incident was almost as sensational as the OJ Simpson trial. Actress Margot Robbie, who also produced the film, continues to impress and will hopefully be involved in more creative projects like this.

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