I, Tonya and all the images you see in this review are owned by Neon
Directed by Craig Gillespie
We can’t have an Oscar Season without at least ONE off the wall biopic, right!? Sure, you’ve got the more straightforward historical dramas like The Post and Darkest Hour, but despite Scorsese striking out with The Wolf of Wall Street at The Oscars, it still made a huge impact and many have tried to recreate its success since then. Not only that, but the fact we’re starting to look back at the nineties in a historical context with at least two recent OJ Simpson projects getting a huge amount of critical praise, it’s no wonder that right after him we get to the other big crime story of that decade; the assault on Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding’s possible involvement with it. Does this reexamination of one of the biggest names in nineties pop culture end up being a phenomenal look at her life and the decade around it, or is this a cynical cash grab trying to get a jump start on Gen X and Millennial nostalgia? Let’s find out!!
Back in the early nineties, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was one of the most prominent names in Women’s Figure Skating; having come from a very poor background and taking a lot of her social upbringing into her performances. Despite Figure Skating being a sport that prizes tradition and perfection in its (none of that uncouth “rock and roll” music!), they could not ignore Harding who was a natural on the ice and the first American female figure skater to land a triple axel (a feat accomplished by Midori Ito and Mao Asada from Japan a few years earlier). Still, it wasn’t an easy road as she had to deal with her abusive mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney) and her just as abusive husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan); both of whom seemed hell bent on making her life miserable despite swearing they were only looking out for her best interests. Things get complicated though when Tonya’s anxiety and even paranoia start to get to her as the weight of her modest celebrity as well as the skills of other skaters made her quite distressed. From here, we start to get speculative about what happened, but the general idea is that one of Jeff’s friends Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) has a friend of his attack one of Tonya’s rivals Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) and the big mystery surrounding it is just how much did Tonya know about what was happening. Did she orchestrate the attack herself? Was she aware that it was going to happen but said nothing to stop it? The movie addresses these questions and more as this dramatized retelling of her story gives us not only a look at the facts as we know them of the case, but the media circus that built up around it and the… interesting characters that were involved. Oh, and there are a few skate numbers as well!
BASED ON A TRUE STORY. As a film critic, there are no other words that will strike icy cold fear into my heart faster than those; other than STARRING ADAM SANDLER or A PUREFLIX FILM. This is a film that does everything that you want from a really great biopic, fictional or otherwise, and is immensely enjoyable to watch on every level. Margo Robbie is sensational in a role that calls for a lot of nuance as well as a wide range of emotions, the story is engaging and does a great job of capturing the time in which the story takes place, and it has a message to say about not only its subject but the world that they were a part of and how they reacted to everything. However, I was sitting in that theater sweating bullets because I legitimately could not tell if this was a propaganda piece and if my enjoyment of the film was a byproduct of me being suckered into its manipulation. To be sure, I DID notice places where it was very manipulative, but the Tonya Harding story was before my time as I wasn’t even in grade school when that all went down and so I didn’t have any preconceived notions about this person and her actions which is USUALLY a good way to go into a movie, but not necessarily when it comes with the banner BASED ON A TRUE STORY. When it comes to movies based on real life people and historical figures, it’s important to take into account the context of their real life story in relation to the way the movie is choosing to tell it which can speak volumes about the filmmakers and their intentions, and while some films make it PRETTY easy to see where they crossed a line into outright offensive revisionism (*cough* All Eyez On Me *cough*), I found this one to be a lot harder to discern fact from fiction. Does that make it a good drama, or a harmful piece of revisionist history? I don’t know the answer to that, but it at least made the journey interesting to go on.
Margot Robbie has proven herself to be a solid actress in roles before, even in truly awful films (*cough* Legend of Tarzan *cough*), but she’s an absolute revelation here; portraying an astonishing range of emptions that go a long way towards humanizing a person that has spent that least twenty years as a disgrace and a punchline. The situations alone would be enough to make any actress look great in this role, but Robbie goes that extra mile as she embodies not just the tragedy of this character in its darkest moments, but her nasty, ambitious, and even meek sides as well which makes her feel so much more real and more than just the sum of the abuse she suffers. While the story gives her the most to do and she handles the spotlight with aplomb, the entire cast is fantastic everyone is putting their all into these offbeat yet distressingly realistic caricatures that seem to have leapt right off the pages of a Tim and Eric script. In particular, we have some outstanding turns from Sabastian Stan as the dumbfounded and extremely insecure husband, Allison Janney as the mother that pushes Tonya to success and continually strips her of sense of self-worth , and Paul Walter Hauser as the black hole of awfulness that everyone inexorable gets dragged into. It all comes together into something that feels like a companion piece to Pain and Gain; not only due to them both covering a similar period of time but the way that the whole artifice of it all plays into the narrative of the film. The framing device is some unspecified documentary where all the key players (at least those still alive) are giving their sides to the story which plays into some fourth wall breaking moments in the film as well as gives the characters a chance to address the audience directly. The story itself would have been fascinating enough had it been a straightforward drama, but the stylistic flourishes seen throughout as well as its dark comedic edge are what put it over the top into something much more memorable than another decently made biopic.
It has some of the typical biopic problems to be sure as things move a bit too fast and it feels like some REALLY important details were missing (if she was constantly held down by the Figure Skating community as this movie says, how the heck did she make it as far as she did?), but they don’t deter too much from the overall quality of the film. They DO however lead into this film’s major problem which is how it contextualizes the story itself and how problematic it can be given the real world circumstances surrounding it. My gut reaction after watching this movie is that Tonya Harding was a victim of her circumstances, coming from an abusive home and living with an abusive husband while also being intentionally held back in her career by a by a Figure Skating culture that saw her as beneath them no matter how well she could skate. She was by no means blameless in what happened as ANY inkling of foul play that she had should have been quashed before it got to the places that it did, but I feel that the story is just as much an indictment of the world that backed her into a corner as much as it was her own terrible decisions. I would LOVE for this to be the case and for the film to be an honest appraisal of what happened, but I wasn’t there, neither were the filmmakers, and there’s a very clear bias in her direction that can be seen through specific filmmaking choice that were made to give her that extra boost of sympathy in certain places. The biggest oversight by far has to do with the portrayal of Nancy Kerrigan as she’s not given a voice in this. All the other key players, from Tonya Harding to Jeff Gillooly, to even her coach Diane Rawlinson, get to be a part of the framing device and even have parts of the movie told from their point of view; all except for Nancy Kerrigan who shouldn’t have been so blatantly overlooked. If this movie is to be in some way a redemption for Tonya Harding, it CAN’T spin the story like that and deny the actual victim of the “incident” as they call it (“battery” would be more accurate) a chance to be heard and to have the movie reflect her point of view. Maybe the better movie would have been a fifty-fifty split between telling us Tonya’s story and Nancy’s story (the latter of whom was ALSO savaged by a sexist media zeitgeist) as it would at least given the movie a bit more balance by introducing an outside perspective. Regardless of the abuse Tonya suffered, Nancy Kerrigan did nothing to deserve an attack like that and Tonya’s connection, no matter how tenuous, isn’t something that should be forgotten.
To address what ELSE the movie brings up though, namely the media circus surrounding the whole thing, there’s a legitimate point to be made about it even with the movie’s clear bias towards Tonya’s perspective. Not only was there the classism that Tonya had to deal with regarding the Figure Skating community (something that’s more or less a provable fact that ALSO affects skaters of color and skaters with less than ideal body types) but in general the media will always be more critical to prominent women than to prominent men who do the same thing. Heck, the current debate on whether or not Tonya should be “forgiven” is a much needed discussion, but is certainly not the kind of one we were having when Richard Linklater released Bernie which basically exonerated a guy who was unambiguously guilty of murder, and we can see it with athletes nowadays who don’t NEARLY have that kind of baggage. Heck, Serena Williams seems to get slammed in the media whenever she dares to speak out or have a photo shoot, and while not ALL of her comments are the most elegantly worded, the amount of backlash is very much unwarranted. Let’s also not forget that the NFL up until rather recently completely ignored or drastically underplayed “incidents” by THEIR players that are just as bad IF NOT FAR WORSE than what happened to Nancy Kerrigan, and outside of OJ Simpson (who was already retired by then) they CERTAINLY weren’t being scrutinized back in 1994! Whether or not Tonya Harding is “deserving” of a redemption arc is ultimately a less pressing concern when compared to the much more insidious problem that the movie addresses which is the mistreatment of women in the media and the constant double standard placed on them. Look no further than the 2016 election (I know Hillary is far from perfect and people have legit criticisms. I’m not talking about that) to find just how unbalanced that coverage can be.
This isn’t an easy one to come down to a single opinion on as the conversation surrounding the reassessment of Tonya Harding is still going on right now and it’s impossible to separate this film from that context. On its purely technical merits as a satisfying and well-made film, it certainly fits the bill there and tells a story that is uproariously funny while also being heartbreakingly tragic. Whether or not you’ll ENJOY this film though is another matter altogether as is the unescapable curse of any film carrying the moniker BASED ON A TRUE STORY, but I think that this story at least needed to be told again now that we’re all in the midst of reassessing how the media and society in general have been treating outspoken women and even those who are forced into the spotlight. Now if the same people make a Nancy Kerrigan movie as well, THEN we might have enough of the whole picture for the merits of this film to be much less ambiguous, but even as a somewhat incomplete and clearly manipulative piece of historical drama… well at least it does a really good job of that.