I, Tonya (2017)

  • Time: 119 min
  • Genre: Biography | Comedy | Drama
  • Director: Craig Gillespie
  • Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale


Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.


  • “I was loved…for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was just a punchline,” That statement sums up the tragic, totally American saga of Tonya Harding, whose talents as a skater were overshadowed first by her trailer trash background and then by “the Incident.” More than a typical rise-and-fall tale, Harding’s story arrived at a time when celebrity culture was firmly taking root, when credible news outlets were beginning to turn into televised gossip rags in order to feed the increasingly ravenous 24-hour news cycle.

    Harding’s wasn’t the only scandal being devoured by the public – Amy Fisher made headlines as the “Long Island Lolita” who shot her married lover’s wife in 1992, the trial of the Menendez Brothers began airing on Court TV in 1993, O.J. Simpson riveted viewers as he was pursued by the Los Angeles police down the freeway in a white Ford Bronco in 1994, and child pageant beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey’s murder shocked the nation in 1995. In 1994, in the middle of all these sordid scandals, came the attack on American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s rival and Olympic teammate, one which played perfectly into the media narrative of the princess being sullied by the working-class redneck. I, Tonya, the scabrous pitch-black comedy fuelled by a ferocious lead performance by Margot Robbie as Harding, is a self-proclaimed “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true” rendering of the events leading up to that attack, but it also functions as a satirical observation of class and the nature of truth.

    Shot as a faux documentary with characters often breaking the fourth wall, the film quickly introduces audiences to its motley crew of characters. There’s her mother LaVona (an absolutely terrific Allison Janney), hard-bitten and oozing toxic negativity from every pore, who believes her verbal and physical abuse inspires her daughter to skate better. In stark contrast to LaVona’s ghastly mothering, there’s the genteel Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), who fosters Tonya’s impressive abilities but warns that skating competitively is not just about having the talent, it’s fitting into the image the judges have of what a figure skater should be. Tonya does anything but fit into that mould – she’s foul-mouthed, abrasive, not above touting her talent, but also quick to blame everyone but herself (“It wasn’t my fault” becomes a constant refrain). She softens a little when she meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), the first guy to ever find her pretty and who appears to be a way out from her suffocating life with LaVona. Yet Jeff, too, turns out to be just another abuser though, like LaVona, he denies ever inflicting any abuse.

    The film’s kaleidoscopic narrative approach not only means everyone gets to tell their own version of the truth, but it also allows screenwriter Steven Rogers and Gillespie the opportunity to demonstrate how each character, save for Diane, manoeuvres to be more than a mere satellite orbiting Tonya. When the film shifts its focus on Tonya and Jeff’s crumbing marriage, LaVona shoves herself back into the fray to complain, “Well, my storyline is disappearing. What. The. F**k.” Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), Jeff’s friend and Tonya’s bodyguard and one of the main orchestrators of Kerrigan’s attack, presents himself as some super secret operative even though he might be one of the most supremely dumb human beings to ever grace the planet.

    Whilst the filmmakers are sympathetic to their subject, neither they nor Robbie ever let Harding off the hook. Yes, Harding was a badass. Yes, she was the first American woman to ever land the notoriously difficult triple axel in competition. Yes, it was unfair that it was more about the image than it was about the skating. Yet, whilst she’s all too ready to credit herself for her triumphs, Harding constantly refuses to hold herself accountable for the failures. “It wasn’t my fault,” she tells LaVona, who rails into her when she receives low scores at the 1986 Skate America competition. “That wasn’t my fault,” she screams at Diane after she tells one of the judges to “suck her d**k.” “That wasn’t my fault,” she insists when she fails to land the triple axel at the 1992 Winter Olympics though a montage of her partying hard says otherwise. “Nancy gets hit one time, and the whole world s**ts. For me, it’s an all the time occurrence,” she observes with more than a hint of bitterness. For Tonya, everyone is an abuser – LaVona, Jeff, the judges, the media – but she keeps getting back up and giving as good as she gets.

    It’s a tricky line I, Tonya treads – the abuse Tonya suffers isn’t played for laughs, but it does often jar with the film’s mordantly comic tone – but it succeeds due to Robbie’s sensational portrayal. Robbie did portions of her own skating, which heavily contributes to the dynamic skating sequences, and, whilst she doesn’t necessarily resemble Harding, she electrifyingly incarnates both aspects of Harding as unconventional heroine and victim.

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  • I, Tonya is my latest write-up. It’s a biographical pic following the skating career of one Tonya Harding and her subsequent involvement in the Nancy Kerrigan baton assault. In “Tonya”, Harding is painted as sympathetic and misread. She gets beaten, put down, and inhabits an unsafe, toxic existence.

    About four days ago, I prematurely put out my top ten movie picks for 2017. After seeing I, Tonya with its ice skating sequences shot so fervently, I think I’m gonna have to make a swift revision.

    I, Tonya may feel like a bullet point presentation of Harding’s 20-year figure skating career from age 4 to age 24. And yeah, I’m not a huge fan of inserted interviews (of the present day personas) that reek of cliche. However, because Tonya Harding was such a polarizing figure and because I remember a lot of the news coverage from 1994, I feel that director Craig Gillespie makes the proceedings a little more special anyway.

    “Tonya” is feverishly paced, with pinpoint storytelling, deadpan performances, a biting 70’s soundtrack, and some nifty match edits (towards the flick’s conclusion). It’s equal parts satiric, upsetting, funny, and in a way, heartbreaking.

    I, Tonya’s wiki page claims that it’s a black comedy. I’m not sure on that one. I’d rather call it a comedy-drama that makes you wriggle. “Tonya” contains filthy, ferocious dialogue, a measure of sucker punch barrage, and an unabashed, wink wink to the audience (a lot of the actors talk right into the camera during regular scenes).

    Come Academy Awards time, I’m hoping that Margot Robbie (as Harding) and Allison Janney (as Harding’s nasty mom LaVona) get nominations for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress respectively. Robbie may not look like Tonya Harding but her transformation and raw containment still comes to fruition. As for Janney, well she gives LaVona Harding a standoffish parka and some vile, spit-fire discourse to accompany her character.

    In conclusion, I, Tonya projects like it’s touched by the cast of Duck Dynasty or the nincompoops that inhabit the The Jerry Springer Show. Its white trash residue and its sledgehammering of squeamish behavior surprisingly make it a near-perfect film. Rating: 3 and a half stars.

    Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆☆ out of 5 stars)

    GRADE: B


    IN BRIEF: A clever bio-pic that purposely mixes fact and fiction.

    SYNOPSIS: The supposed story of ice skater, Tonya Harding.

    RUNNING TIME: 1 hr., 59 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: I, Tonya is not your typical biography film. Craig Gillespie solidly directs his movie about the infamous ice skater, Tonya Harding, with a bold conceit, purposely mixing fact and fiction and admitting this premise from the outset. He skates through the hard news facts and avoids conventional storytelling techniques in a refreshing way. The director tends to simplify the story as he adds one part high melodrama and two parts irony to his dark comedy. He does overload the film with 90’s pop standards that overstate his message, but he assembles a winning cast of players who act their roles with expert glee and a strong satiric edge.

    I, Tonya stays on target with its low-trash trashing of America, and having Tonya portrayed as the eternally abused heroine.  Perhaps, not the most accurate depiction of this celebrity. The clever screenplay by Steven Rogers uses mock interviews with the actors in character and the supposed “true” events that led up to the attack on fellow skater, Nancy Kerrigan. The script reinforces this notion with a “she said-he said” formula which works.

    The film sets up the story of Ms. Harding’s early skating career, her heartless mother, her violent relationship with her husband, her Olympic dreams, and the “incident” leading to her downfall.  It tells its tale effectively but spends too much time blaming those around Tonya as her victimizers and making her more saintly sympathetic than need be. Where the film mostly succeeds is in its sardonic black humor and outlandish characterizations.

    Margot Robbie, a bit too beautiful for the part, is quite sensational as Tonya. The actress interprets her role very well as abused victim and hard-as-nails survivor. She rarely is shown to be apologetic or kind, usually appears to be temperamental and impetuous, yet Ms. Robbie makes Tonya empathetic and vulnerable. She is excellent throughout the film, her highpoint being her dressing room scene prior to Tonya’s disgraceful showing at the Olympics and the film’s brutal closing moments. Those alone deserve award attention.

    Ms. Robbie gets strong support from a fine ensemble that are physically aligned to the real life counterparts and bring a fierce determination to their characters. Sebastian Stan is Jeff Gillooly, her abusive spouse, and he makes this despicable person a dangerous force and troubled soul. His scenes of sudden violence and unpredictable behavior are powerful. Paul Walter Hauser plays Shawn Eckhardt, his half-witted accomplice with delusions of grandeur, and the actor is quite wonderful…funny and yet pitifully tragic. Some of the other roles could use more clarification and depth, but they are graced with talented performers like Julianne Nicholson and Bobby Cannavale who add much to their sketchy parts.

    But the real scene-stealer is Allison Janney as her cold-hearted mother. LaVona. She creates a bitter hateful woman, unloved and unloving, and Ms. Janney, almost unrecognizable, never allows her cruel character to be the least bit sympathetic or caring with the moviegoing audience. What could easily have been an overdone evil caricature becomes an wildly eccentric character that is, understandably, the main cause-and-effect of Tonya’s dysfunction. Her scenes with Ms. Robbie have a bittersweet sadness and a quick comic give-and-take shock value that empowers the film.

    I, Tonya is a well-made and searing indictment of the rise and fall of one woman and her quest for fame, fortune, and the American Dream. Be careful what you wish for.

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  • Though this film is set 25 years ago it’s an incisive analysis of Trump’s America. Or as Prince might have called it, the States formerly known as United. Tonya is the rough-hewn have-not who can’t get a break in the righteous liberal style-conscious America now under fire.
    She flashes an All-American smile under her tears, make-up and shiner-patch. She becomes a world titlist at the difficult art of figure skating, but she can’t satisfy her mother, her brutal husband or the fickle public.
    Neither the breathtaking grace of her art nor the hard-won height of her success can fill the void with which her birth and restrictive upbringing have cursed her. The skating judges remain biased against her, for that class-loaded criterion “presentation.” As Tonya marvels at the sympathy Kerrigan gets, “Look, Nancy gets hit one time and the whole world shits. For me it was an all-the-time occurrence.”
    As befits a film about a performer, the film is organized on the theme of performance. We’re told the story in a variety of interviews and restagings. The telling becomes as important as the story, especially when the men’s plot against Nancy Kerrigan kicks in.
    The characters are all performers rather than persons. Tonya’s mother is a monster who rejects any tenderness from or to her daughter — and indeed turns away from every peck from the pet bird on her shoulder. She wears it to recoil from it. In her coldness and language she’s an ogre playing the part of a mother with no understanding of her lines or role. So, too, she sexualizes her daughter, to prepare for that sexualized art. Thus her description of Tonya’s supposed failure: “You skated like a graceless bull dyke. I was embarrassed for you. ” Small maternal sympathy, there.
    The mother’s defense to her daughter is a classic perversion: “I made you a champion, knowing you’d hate me for it. That’s the sacrifice a mother makes! I wish I’d had a mother like me instead of nice. Nice gets you shit! I didn’t like my mother either, so what? I fucking gave you a gift!” Her home visit seems tender and supportive, until Tonya discovers her mother is trying to tape her admission/denial of complicity in the Kerrigan plot, presumably for her own profit. “You can tell me.”
    Tonya’s husband equally veers between protestations of helpless love and beating her up. His accomplice Shawn is a live-at-home loser who seems to believe his repeated lie that he’s an accomplished international secret agent working against terrorism. This while he directs a terrorist act against America’s best figure skater.
    The characters are all poor. Tonya’s mother raises her on a waitress salary, her husband with minor odd jobs. Tonya’s after-skate career is waitressing, women’s boxing and worse. But they feel an entitlement beyond their means: “I’m America’s best figure skater! I don’t want friggin’ Eskimo Pies” — but Dove Bars. Hr husband lures her back — briefly — with a fridgeful.
    The Kerrigan “incident” itself is described as the biggest stupidity in a world of stupids. Everyone here is as incompetent, unimaginative, fumbling and self-deceiving as … well, Trump’s White House. There are no ideas or logic, just reflexes. As Tonya’s mother advises, “You fuck dumb. You don’t marry dumb.” In this distortion of democracy there is no respect for knowledge or intelligence. If this story were not so tragic to its modest players and if this were not such an accurate reflection of Trump’s dumbed-down and disintegrating America, this comedy of sad errors would be hilarious.
    More to that point, as Tonya says, “There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.” Her husband says of a scene we’re watching actually happen, “This is bullshit. I never did this!” Time and again Tonya contradicts herself within a sentence and it doesn’t matter. Like she’s the president.
    Despite her coarseness and self-unawareness Tonya becomes a very touching figure. Her ice-rink mother determined her life from the age of three and hammered her into it. The public was hungry for someone to admire, then hungrier for someone to vilify: “America. They want someone to love, they want someone to hate.”
    That role proved as reductive of Tonya as her mother’s stardom dream was: “I was loved for a minute, then I was hated. Then I was just a punch line.” This film stops the punch line and returns the bad-joke woman to humanity. And it’s an abused, class-conscious humanity. Hence Tonya’s accusation to the film audience: “It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.”

  • “Some Darwin award winners”.
    Rating: 8/10.

    Man, I personally found this one to be an exceedingly uncomfortable watch.

    “I, Tonya” is cleverly filmed as a pseudo-documentary, featuring re-enactments of the real-life interviews of most of the participants in this true-life drama. I recently bitterly criticised some film critics for spoiling the story of Donald Crowhurst, the subject of the recent “The Mercy”. But I was about to do exactly the same here, *assuming* that you all know the lurid tale of the rivalry between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan that led up to an ‘event’ in 1994 that shocked the world. And of course, many of you younger folk don’t know: case in point my 26 year old son who I went to see this with, and who went into the story blissfully blind of the drama about to unfold. So I will try to keep this review spoiler-free.

    Playing Tonya from a (not very credible!) 15 years old to her mid-20’s is Margot Robbie (“The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Suicide Squad”) in what is a BAFTA and Oscar nominated performance. And for good reason: the performance is raw, visceral and disturbing in reflecting a victim who still thinks everything at heart is her own fault.

    Also BAFTA and Oscar nominated is Allison Janney (“The Girl on the Train”) as Tonya’s obnoxious chain-smoking mother LaVona. Janney is truly terrifying as the mother who abuses her daughter both physically and mentally in a driven attempt to make her the best ice-skater in the world.

    Victims seem to attract abusers, and Tonya is surrounded by people who are just plain bad for her: notably her husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan, “The Martian”, “Captain America: Winter Soldier”) and his slimy and pitifully self-deluded friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). The end credits video footage of the real-life players show just how well these parts were cast.

    Why so uncomfortable to watch? There is a significant degree of domestic abuse featured in the film, both in terms of LaVona on her child and Jeff on his wife. This is something I abhor in general, having been brought up to believe it is never EVER acceptable to lay a hand on a woman. To have these cowardly individuals sensationalised in the movie I found to be really upsetting. I strongly feel, for this reason alone, that the film should have had an 18 certificate. Violence in film should be related to the context as well as the severity. (Note that this is in stark contrast to my comments of recent BBFC decisions to make “Phantom Thread” and “Lady Bird” 15-certificates when I believe they should have been 12A).

    The film is executed extremely well, with 4:3 framing for the staged interviews, and ice skating scenes that seamlessly cut between the professional clearly doing the stunts and Robbie (who must also be a half decent skater too). The soundtrack is nicely littered – “Guardians of the Galaxy” style – with classic hits of the early 90’s.

    To think that this story actually unfolded in this way is nothing short of astounding… but it did! There is an astonishing video clip here (#spoilers) of the run up to, and the immediate aftermath of, the Kerrigan incident. I came out of the film with a deep feeling of sadness for Harding (at least, as portrayed) and utter disgust that the villains of this piece could be a) so cruel and out of control and b) so utterly stupid. These are individuals who really should have been sterilised to stop them polluting the gene pool any further.

    Written by Steven Rogers (“Stepmom”) and directed by Australian Craig Gillespie, there is no doubting that this is a powerful film: played to an absolutely silent and gripped Saturday night cinema audience. And it has truly dynamite performances from Allison Janney and Margot Robbie. But be warned that you’ll need a strong stomach to go and see it without being affected by it afterwards. It’s a mental keeper.

    (For the graphical review please visit bob-the-movie-man.com or One Mann’s Movies on Facebook).

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