From the naming convention that brought you I, ROBOT and I, FRANKENSTEIN comes I, TONYA. I, Vern, was concerned about this one from the second the production company logos started. Obviously I’m all for movies kicking off with a blast of funk, but I couldn’t see how such music represented Tonya Harding, the scandal-scarred bad girl of Olympic figure skating, icon of early ’90s teased bangs, discussed in this movie as going to a Richard Marx concert, disparaged for her allegedly low class music choices in competitions (“Sleeping Bag” by ZZ Top), declaring herself a redneck, marrying a white man who wears a turtleneck under a cardigan.
Okay, they got a Chicago song on there, I buy that. But Violent Femmes? Siouxsie and the Banshees covering Iggy Pop? And yes, there’s a prominent use of “Spirit in the Sky.” All movies that aspire to hipness have “Spirit in the Sky.”
Throughout the movie these wall-to-wall needle drops never said to me “This is the soul of Tonya Harding,” but instead “Guys, this is like BOOGIE NIGHTS! This is like GOODFELLAS! Right Guys? It’s like Scorsese!” An Entertainment Weekly interview with music supervisor Susan Jacobs confirms that she sees it as “the soundtrack of AMERICAN HUSTLE or a Scorsese film.” She says they chose ’70s and early ’80s music because “there’s a warmth to the ’70s that does not exist to the ’80s and ’90s.” Sorry Richard Marx.
It’s a small thing. Most people shouldn’t care. But it felt false to me, and kept me a little skeptical.
Strike 2 is also right at the beginning: fake interviews with actors portraying real people. I’ve always hated that approach. Buddy, if you think a documentary is a better way to tell this story then maybe make a documentary? If you hired actors you should let them act it out in such a way that we get the idea without them having to tell us what to think. At least, that’s how I was raised. It didn’t help that one of the fake interviewees is Bobby Cannavale (SNAKES ON A PLANE) as a tanned and very-fond-of-himself former Hard Copy producer inviting us to laugh at these stupid people he’s gonna tell us about that he and us are obviously so much better than that we can hardly believe it. The large opening weekend crowd at the Uptown took him up on the offer, condescendingly chuckling at everything before any jokes even happened.
An early laugh that is a joke line: that character explains what Hard Copy was (a sleazy, sensationalistic news show) and says that the rest of the media complained about them, then became them. Huge laugh. Take that, the media. But along with accepting his criticism of the modern media landscape we’re also accepting some gum-chewing dickhead who helped create that and isn’t ashamed of it as a reasonable guy to tell us this story. You’re some character in NIGHTCRAWLER but you’re pretending to be our voice of reason? Fuck you, dude.
Luckily, it’s a trap. I think it might be the intentional design of screenwriter Steven Rogers (not Captain America – the guy who wrote HOPE FLOATS and STEPMOM) and director Craig Gillespie (MR. WOODCOCK, LARS AND THE REAL GIRL, FRIGHT NIGHT) to lure people in with this winky shit and then pivot to actual sympathy. If not, Margot Robbie (THE LEGEND OF TARZAN) pulled it off anyway. She’s so outstanding as gun-toting, engine fixing, triple-axeling Harding that I doubt I was the only one completely wrapped up in the point-of-view of this infamous tabloid villainess. It’s a tragedy about a little girl whose only dream is to ice skate and how that dream is torn away and stomped on when she’s barely an adult, and now she’s still alive and that was a million years ago but people still froth at the mouth when her name comes up. The movie makes it quirky, Robbie makes it devastating.
Even the fake interview format I hate so much is arguably redeemed by a gut stab of a moment when Robbie-as-older-Tonya looks into the camera and accuses the audience – us, you, me – of being complicit in abusing her. And I didn’t think she was wrong. I remember how we thought of her back then. To me she was a symbol of how crazy the world was getting. She wasn’t a person.
It’s a bumpy ride. Scenes about disappointment (her dad leaving) and abuse (fiancee Jeff Gillooly [Sebastian Stan, RICKI AND THE FLASH] bashing her head against a wall) are cut with ironic music or grim fourth-wall-breaking commentary that could be distancing or glib. Instead their seeming inappropriateness made them more effectively traumatic for me.
Jeff is a loser and a creep, but at least you see the sweet side of him that got her into this mess. If her mom (Allison Janney, GET ON UP) ever acts nice, though, for sure it’s a set up. She’s more emotionally abusive than physical, and that’s saying something, because she throws a knife into her!
At her best, Mom is a pushy ally in the war against classism in the figure skating world. By definition a competition is elitist, but Tonya can be a demonstrably superior skater who gets lower scores because of “presentation” – she can’t afford fancy costumes and has to make them herself. When her coach (Julianne Nicholson, BLACK MASS) says she needs a fur coat she gets one made of rabbits she kills herself. She’s getting docked for something she oughta get extra credit for.
I don’t know, maybe you guys are all figure skating fanatics, but personally the only reason I know who she is is because of the kneecapping of her fellow American skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver, PAPER TOWNS). Eventually the fake-interviewees consent to explain “the incident” as if they’re gonna rush through it just to get it over with. Instead, the movie sort of turns into a mini FARGO as Jeff and his moronic friend Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) instigate a pre-Olympics dirty tricks campaign to give Tonya an edge over Nancy. The way the movie tells it, Tonya seems to have knowledge of a plan to scare Kerrigan with a death threat letter, but doesn’t take it seriously and has no idea that wannabe “counter-espionage expert” Shawn decides to pay two “operatives” to assault her.
For the attack, the filmatism audaciously switches to a closeup of the nervous attacker (Ricky Russert, Banshee)’s face as he sneaks in, finds her, hits her, runs, is locked in, has to break a glass door. You can sense his heart beating out of control, him nearly choking on his breath. Feeling that terror of going through with it milks my human empathy for this guy I’ve never seen before who’s doing this horrible thing.
Shawn is a really funny character, Jeff’s dumb sidekick who lives in his mom’s basement and still thinks people will believe him when he insinuates a black ops past like Seagal did in early interviews. He was described in the media as “Harding’s bodyguard,” and I think it’s a funny detail that in the movie they never show him actually being a bodyguard. Makes him seem like even more of a jackass. In this version, the assault on Kerrigan is him taking the initiative to go further even than Jeff wanted. I don’t know if that’s wishful thinking on the part of the real Gillooly when interviewed by the screenwriter, but it sure makes Shawn into a good, aggravating villain.
This also helps make Jeff into a more dimensional character than he could’ve been, because he gets in over his head too. The role is kind of a boon for Stan, because I always feel like if that guy is a good actor he never gets a chance to shine. For example Bucky Barnes in the CAPTAIN AMERICA series is a really cool idea for a character, but spends most of his time as a hollow mind control victim. Is there some kid somewhere whose favorite super hero is The Winter Soldier? I doubt it. Here he gets to play this guy who’s a piece of shit but he makes us not hate him every time he’s on screen. Just most of the times.
But most of all, this movie is a great moment for Robbie, as lead actress and producer. She was good when I first saw her in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, better in the mess that was SUICIDE SQUAD, but I would never have guessed she’d go this far this fast. Actually, all three of these characters are women who get dragged down by their shitbag men, and try to find their strength in different ways. Robbie finds humanity and middle-finger-to-the-word rebel appeal in the strangest places. And that’s not even taking into account that she learned how to ice skate for this shit! Some of the FX used to put her face on a stunt double (I’m assuming) are incredible.
* * *
I’ve seen some random internet people disgusted that there’s a sympathetic Tonya Harding movie, remembering the wicked witch of the rink and her crimes against humanity a quarter century ago. They seem convinced that she should be in some supermax somewhere preparing for a match against Boyka. This is a sign of the effectiveness of these media frenzies back then, because think about it: at worst, she knew her asshole ex-husband hired a guy to hit her rival on the leg. The victim survived and healed up fast enough to win a silver medal at the Olympics, make a ton of money and host Saturday Night Live (although that was embarrassing). In any version of this, Harding was only 23 years old and the attack was arranged by her older, controlling, abusive husband. She’s not exactly Charles Manson.
I’m not saying you have to like her. I’m not sure I do. If she only seemed sorry about the whole thing maybe the world would be nicer to her. Maybe then she could’ve become buds with Kerrigan and nobody could knock her anymore.
But I looked it up, and the 2014 Olympic champion was Adelina Sotnikova, who wasn’t even born when this shit went down. Is this really a grudge worth holding on to? A sin so unforgivable that we can’t show Harding a little human sympathy for what she went through? People have been forgiven for worse crimes.
This isn’t in the movie, but for her Olympic routine at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994, Harding skated to the JURASSIC PARK theme. And maybe she’s like those dinosaurs. She didn’t ask to be created, she’s just being herself, if she did something bad she still deserves dignity. I have no idea if she had more involvement in the attack than she copped to. But there’s something nicely humane about a movie like this saying look, she’s not a hero or a villain, she’s a complicated, messy human being. She had a rough life, she made bad choices, she was also incredibly talented, and did amazing things. Maybe her lack of discipline fucked her up at the Olympics, but then again an incredible discipline got her there in the first place. Some people liked her brashness, some people didn’t. She definitely fit a certain stereotype exploited to disparage the “trailer trash” of the world, and that sucks, no matter her level of guilt. She’s an interesting person, at least, and makes for an interesting movie. I, liked it.
P.S. This review is the first in a trilogy. (Don’t worry, I’m not gonna review the “Tonya and Jeff’s Wedding Night” video.)
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.