“I, TONYA” (2017) Review

 

“I, TONYA” (2017) Review

Like others who had grown up in the mid-to-late 20th century, I remember the sports scandal that surrounded Olympic figure skaters, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. The media wallowed in the scandal on television screens, newspapers and magazines. It all culminated when both women participated in the 1994 Winter Olympics Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

Several months after the ’94 Olympic Games, NBC aired the 1994 television movie, “TONYA AND NANCY: THE INSIDE STORY”. Actually, the television movie appeared two months after the Lillehammer games. Did I see it? No. In fact, I did not even bother to watch the two skaters’ compete in the Olympic Games. I barely gave Harding or Kerrigan a thought through those years in which the scandal was mentioned or spoofed in a series of television episodes, movies, songs and documentaries. However, during the fall of 2017, I found myself watching the trailer for biopic about Harding called “I, TONYA”. The trailer seemed so intriguing and somewhat off-the-wall that for the first time in twenty-three years, I found myself intrigued by the subject and decided to watch it.

Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers (one of the film’s co-producers), “I, TONYA” is basically a biography about Tonya Harding and her connection to the January 6, 1994 attack on rival Nancy Kerrigan. To be honest, Kerrigan played a supporting role – and not a very big one – in this biopic. This movie was all about Tonya. Starring Margot Robbie in the title role, “I, TONYA” followed Harding’s life from the age of four to the immediate aftermath of the Lillehammer Games. The movie was written a mockumentary style that featured fictional interviews of Harding and others who had a major role in her life:

*Ex-husband Jeff Gillooly
*LaVona Golden, Tonya’s husband
*Diane Rawlinson, Tonya’s first and last skating coach
*Shawn Eckhardt, Gillooly’s close friend and Tonya’s so-called bodyguard
*Martin Maddox, a fictional character who is basically a composite of many television producers that exploited the 1994 scandal

Ironically, Nancy Kerrigan is the only major character in this movie who was not interviewed. Perhaps Gillespie and Robbie, who served as one of the film’s other three producers, felt that the real Kerrigan would be offended at the thought of her cinematic counterpart being featured as a supporting character in a film about Harding. Judging from Kerrigan’s reaction to the movie, they were right. Another aspect of this film that I found surprising is that it was basically a biopic about Harding. The latter did not share top billing with her rival in this film, unlike the 1994 television film. It turns out that screenwriter/co-producer Steven Rogers found Harding’s personal life more complex and compelling. He also noticed that both Harding and her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, had very conflicting accounts of what really happened with Kerrigan and realized this would make an interesting narrative for a film.

Was “I, TONYA” an interesting film? Well . . . yes. Yes, it was. But it had its flaws. Actually, I could only find one major flaw in the film’s narrative. For a film that allegedly was supposed to be about Harding from the viewpoints of several people, it seemed to me that aside from trainer Diane Rawlinson, only Harding’s point-of-view really seemed to matter. Or the one audiences were expected to take seriously. Most of Jeff Gillooly’s account of his relationship with Harding were portrayed with a grain of salt. At the same time, audiences were expected to accept his account of his relationship with Shawn Eckhardt as the real deal. This . . . contradiction seemed a bit hard to swallow at times. Look . . . I realize that Tonya Harding is at the center of this tale. But if one is going to utilize the narration of more than one character, all viewpoints should be equally judged on whether to take them seriously or not.

But you know what? I still found “I, TONYA” rather interesting. I also found it entertaining. One, screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie took what could have been a basic Hollywood biopic and created what turned out to be one of the most original and somewhat bizarre film biographies I have ever seen, hands down. As I had earlier pointed out, Rogers and Gillespie utilized the “mockdocumentary” style to include scenes that feature interviews of the main characters. I thought this movie device was utilized with great wit, along with a dash of dark humor and great satisfaction for me. This was especially the case when both the screenwriter and director used it to break the “fourth wall” – a narrative device used when a character breaks away from the story to address the audience.

Many people have wondered why Rogers had focused his screenplay on Tonya Harding. Why not write a movie about both Harding and Nancy Kerrigan? Well . . . as I had earlier pointed out, such a story had already been told in that 1994 NBC television movie I had earlier mentioned. Rogers could have done a movie about Kerrigan and her family’s struggles to support her skating career. It probably would have been a very uplifiting film. But if one looks into Harding’s personal history . . . well, I might as well be frank . . . it is the stuff from which movie biopics are made. Between Harding’s contentious and abusive relationships with both her mother La Vona Golden and first husband Jeff Gillooly, her earthy and frank personality and her more aggressive and modern style of skating that led her to clash with the judges . . . I mean, honestly, can you really blame both Steven Rogers and Craig Gillespie for choosing to do a movie about her? I certainly cannot. Between the off-the-wall directorial style that Gillespie had utilized and Rogers’ sharp screenplay, is it any wonder that I found this movie so fascinating to watch?

What I found even more fascinating is that the movie put the screws to everyone – Harding’s mother, ex-husband, his friend Shawn Eckhardt, the men recruited to attack Kerrigan, the ice skating organizations (both national and international) and yes . . . even Harding herself. Whenever the script had the former ice skating making excuses for some of her questionable actions, it also revealed her excuses or comments as lies. But the most interesting moment occurred when Harding (as narrator) turned to the camera and made this comment about the media and the public’s reaction to her legal travails:

” It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.”

Now . . . one could dismiss this as petulant complaining from the leading character’s part. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it is not. But I could not help thinking there was a great deal of truth in those words. As much as the media and the public loves worshiping a celebrity, once the latter slips or make a mistake, both will bash or drag that celebrity through the mud for as long as they can. It almost seemed as if they revel in that celebrity’s misfortune. Like I said, Harding and those close to her were not the only ones skewered in this film.

In order to make a movie work, one needs a first-rate story, director and cast. “I, TONYA” was very lucky to have Steven Rogers and Craig Gillespie as its screenwriter and director. It was also blessed with a first-rate cast. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Julianne Nicholson, Mckenna Grace, the very entertaining Bobby Cannavale, Bojana Novakovic and Caitlin Carver. However, the performances that really impressed me came from four people – Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Paul Walter Hauser and Allison Janney.

Paul Walter Hauser gave a very funny performance as the clueless Shawn Eckhardt, whose enthusiasm toward his role as Harding’s “bodyguard” may have led him to go too far. Sebastian Stan gave a very complex performance as Harding’s first husband, Jeff Gillooly. Stan portrayed his character with a combination of quiet charm and violent intensity. Frankly, he should have been nominated for his performance. The wonderful Allison Janney won both a Golden Globe Award and an Academy Award for her portrayal of Harding’s sharp-tongued and abrasive mother, La Vona Golden. I could never decide whether the character was funny or horrifying. But thanks to Janney’s performance, she was very interesting. Margot Robbie (who also served as one of the film’s producers) is the last actress I could see portraying Tonya Harding. If I must be blunt, she is taller and better looking than the Olympic skater. And yet . . . she gave one of the best performances of her career (so far) as the ambitious and aggressive Harding. I really admire how Robbie managed to convey so many aspects of the skater’s personality without being overwhelmed. She really earned her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations.

Aside from the story, the direction and performances, there were other aspects of “I, TONYA” that I admired. My mind was not particularly blown away by Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography. But I thought his work served both the film’s story and setting rather well. I could also say the same about Jennifer Johnson’s costume designs, which more than an adequate job of serving both the film’s late 20th century setting and Harding’s historic skating costumes. I do not recall Peter Nashel’s score. But I must admit that I admire how he utilize well known tunes from the late 20th century throughout the film. The one technical aspect of “I, TONYA” that I truly admired was Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing. I thought she did a superb job in the way she shaped Harding’s tale from Gillespie’s narrators, fourth walls and sequences on the ice rink. For her work, Riegel earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Editing and won the American Cinema Editors Award for Best Edited Feature Film – Comedy or Musical.

I never thought I would find myself watching a movie about Olympic ice skater, Tonya Harding. Hell, I never thought I would end up enjoying it. Yet, I did enjoy “I, TONYA” very much. I thought it was one of the most bizarre and fascinating biopics I have ever seen. In fact, thanks to director Craig Gillespie, screenwriter Steven Rogers and a superb cast led by Margot Robbie, “I, TONYA” proved to be one of my favorite movies of 2017.

 

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“There’s no such thing as truth. It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.”

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