I, Tonya (2017)

I, Tonya PosterI cried last night at the dark comedy, I, Tonya. I laughed a bit too, but it is one of the saddest movies I’ve seen in a long time. My younger son, on the other hand, found it really funny, but with dark parts too. Both of us agreed that this is a really good movie. (Full disclosure: I usually find dark comedies sad. I hated The War of the Roses because the main characters were so horrible to each other.)

My son is too young to remember the “whack heard around the world”, but most of us recall this notorious incident in figure skating history. Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan were training to compete for a spot on the 1994 US Olympic team. Nancy Kerrigan incidentA thug hired by Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (with whom she was living at the time) whacked the leg of Kerrigan with a baton, with the intention of taking her out of competition. The thug missed her knee, though, and Kerrigan went on to win the silver medal at the Olympics, while Harding only placed 8th. The story is so bizarre and yet it is true… but what exactly the truth is depends on who is telling the story. And therein lies the basis for the movie.

I, Tonya was written by Steven Rogers, based in part on long interviews with Harding and Gillooly themselves. Rogers bought the rights to Harding’s life story, and so was free to apply the dark comedy treatment which highlights the absurdities of the story, the incompetence of the criminals, and the discrepancies between the various versions of the “truth”. In addition to the inherent humour, the delivery of the asides to the camera and the interviews where the characters tell their versions of events are really funny. The background story of Tonya Harding’s life is not.

Harding’s truth is that of poverty and of emotional and physical abuse by her mother, LaVona. While her mother certainly worked hard to enable Harding to skate, witnesses also saw her beat her daughter with a hair brush at a rink. Police reports also support Harding’s tale of abuse at the hands of Gillooly. And as a rock-music-loving rebel and self-described “trailer trash”, Harding was not the image that the figure skating powers-that-be wanted to support. Her necessarily hand-sown costumes did not allow her to score the style points she needed in competition. But her athleticism could not be denied. The height of her jumps lead her to be only the second woman in the world (and the first in the US) to land a triple-axel in competition.

The movie, I, Tonya, certainly does not portray Harding as a hero, but it does show how her life lead almost inevitably to tragedy. It leaves the viewer agreeing that she likely did not know about the attack (or at least its planned severity), but that she was complicit in trying to cover it up. The latter is what she plead guilty to, receiving a sentence of three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, $100,000 in fines, and having to give up her US Figure Skating Association membership (which would mean a lifetime ban on competition and on earning money from coaching).

Sebastian Stan and Margot RobbieMargot Robbie, who co-produced the movie, transforms herself into Tonya Harding, with the complicated blend of girl wanting to be loved and hard-nosed woman. Robbie was born too late to have heard about the Harding scandal and, according to Cineplex Magazine, thought she was reading a crazy fictional story when she first read the script. While she had skated and played hockey before the movie, she learned to figure skate really well (but not do the triple axel!) by training 20 hours per week for 5 months, as described in The Hollywood Reporter.

A minor complaint is that, in my opinion, Robbie at 27 looks a bit too old to be playing a 15-year-old or even a 23-year-old. And one thing I noticed about the skating costumes is that the movie cuts them in the modern way (with a good portion of buttocks showing), which was not the way they were worn (more modestly) in the ’90’s. However, the soundtrack is very authentic to the time period and fits the scenes well.

Allison JanneyAll of the main actors turn in performances that come so near to available footage of interviews with the real-life characters. But by far the best performance is that of Allison Janney, who has just won a Golden Globe.  She is so believable as the mother who, while probably doing what she thought was best, was explosive and disturbing in her constant abuse of her talented daughter. These scenes of violence, along with those delivered by Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly, are really startlingly realistic but necessary to the unfolding story. (I did hear some strange laughter in the audience in what I felt were inappropriate places, but I wonder if some of that comes from the shock of it.) In the end, what made me cry was just the absolute tragedy of a life derailed by a truly stupid and violent event. (Note that I don’t think this excuses anything and I don’t know what Harding’s involvement truly was. Other lives were severely impacted of course, especially Nancy Kerrigan’s.)

It’s interesting how little of Kerrigan is in the movie, but as she herself recently said, “I was the victim. Like, that’s my role in this whole thing. That’s it.” I, Tonya is Harding’s story (even with Gillooly’s side also being shown) and she herself is really happy with the movie. It’s nice to read that she has a good life now (again not excusing anything) with her husband and seven-year-old son.

I read another interesting piece that talked about some of the other elements that could have been included to make the movie more well-rounded. For example, the first woman in the world to land the triple axel in competition was Midori Ito of Japan, and “she, too, was hardly a media darling in the West, and was written and spoken about in racist and masculine terms.” The article also talks about some possible motivations if Harding was actually involved in the attack on Kerrigan, such as the competition for endorsement money and the relatively poorer performances that Harding gave as compared to Kerrigan in the lead-up to the big events.

I, Tonya is a movie that I can highly recommend, providing that you are able to handle the disturbing realism of the violent scenes. Oscar nominations are likely coming.

For another perspective on I, Tonya, check out Servetus’ day at the movies over on Me+Richard.

(Photos from IMDb, except Kerrigan photo from ESPN Sports.)

8 thoughts on “I, Tonya (2017)

  1. I watched the movie and agree with your review. It aas difficult to watch her being abused verbally, emotionally and physically. Her mother certainly is a piece of work. If Allison Janney

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  2. Huh. I do agree about the sound track; forgot to mention that. It is excellent. At least five times during the film I found myself thinking, “that song is so appropriate here.” And also about Allison Janney. Great performance.

    Thanks for the link to the other review. I disagree with a lot of that and I think the reviewer missed the point of the film almost entirely. She seems to think “I, Tonya” should be seen as a documentary film about the incident, criticizing it for leaving stuff out or making Tonya look sympathetic — and I don’t think that was the thrust of the film at all. Its refusal to be a documentary or a statement about “what happened” is indicated first and foremost, and aggressively, not just by the introduction that says the film was composed on the basis of “wildly contradictory interviews,” i.e., what we’re about to see will involve irresolvable contradictions, but also by the ongoing statements of the characters to the audience that certain things are not true via the technique of breaking the fourth wall, which goes on throughout the film and culminates about 80 percent of way through in the sequences that follow Tonya’s statement, “this is what you came for, right?” What the characters specifically tell you is that it will NOT be a film about the truth, because nobody involved ever told (all of) it, and one thing it’s very explicitly poking fun at is the prurience of the viewer in wanting to relieve the incident. The point of a documentary can be reconstructing the true story about something, but here the point seems to be examining the way that the people involved told the story. In that sense, it is the epitome of dark comedy: an incompetent team that considers doing a horrifying thing (taboo topic), which is ridiculous because the only way these boobs could have managed it would have been by accident (which would be funny under other circumstances, like if this were a Three Stooges film). All the way through, the film signals, “can you BELIEVE these people? They’re like something from a bad sitcom,” and just when we’re laughing hardest, the script reminds us of their devastating attack on Kerrigan.

    Ack: joke is on the viewer! The point of dark comedy isn’t laughter in the traditional sense. When we catch ourselves laughing at the idiocy of the whole thing when it turns dark, we find ourselves horrified that we’re laughing at it — even though we knew all along that it had to happen. The effectiveness of this strategy is contingent on the willingness of the viewer to find anything about the incident funny; this reviewer was clearly not in the position, maybe because of her remembered emotional attachment to Harding, she still finds herself disappointed by her all these years later. What made this work for me is that if this weren’t all real, it would read like a slapstick comedy from the early days of film, or perhaps a Warner Bros. cartoon in which the characters fall off cliffs and then come back to haunt us. I suppose humor is an individual thing but IMO the approach of that review missed important things about the film.

    Also, the review is incorrect in that the film does speak about Harding’s need for money and her failure to obtain endorsements, in at least two specific scenes that I remember; Harding’s mother’s and her own ongoing issues with money come up regularly throughout the film. (I also think it’s not typically something you need to say to an American audience, that the need for money rules the world. We know that already. We know what waitresses in diners earn; we can see how rundown Lavona Harding’s house is; we can see the poverty of the interiors — a detail I found really convincing, even if this episode predated the whole housing bubble and the tricking out of American kitchens). I didn’t realize that Ito had landed the jump first but again, I don’t think it’s all that important here because the fact that Harding was a skater was mostly incidental to what the film was trying to say. (I also found myself thinking about Surya Bonaly while watching it, in that she also stood outside fulfill US skating’s prejudicial expectations about the appearance of the skaters; but Ito was small, cute, sweet and smiley, and dressed correctly. That American sports commentators will make racist remarks goes without saying; still, Ito had a positive buzz in the US that Harding and Bonaly never attained).

    What I thought the film was: a very trenchant critique of US society and values — the idea that Harding’s best path to adult success lay in the pursuit of elusive superstardom based on an obscure talent, as opposed to just educating herself — and the fact that she was lauded for her dedication; our weird obsession with the egoistic cultivation of talent; the contradictions between the pristine image of the skater and the way they are trained and disciplined behind the scenes — in that sense the abuse Harding experienced at the hands of her mother was primarily an extreme synecdoche; the contradictory expectations placed on women; the way Americans need to build up a figure and then tear him/her down; our obsessive desire for news and gossip; the way we make certain kinds of stability inaccessible to larger social groups; and tangentially, our lust for violence and the spectacle around it. If any of that were treated with gravity, the very ridiculous elements of this particular story would inevitably intervene. (You’re trying to say something deep about American society? Come on, it’s *Tonya Harding* we’re talking about. She’s the punchline of every joke.) Given those constraints, dark comedy was the perfect way to tell this story. I don’t know if you’ve read Theodore Dreiser’s book “An American Tragedy” but this film reminded me very much of that story, albeit in a different genre. Or we could see it in the terms of a Greek tragedy where it’s precisely the strength of the main character that triggers their fall; the thing that makes them most successful also makes them the most vulnerable..

    I also disagree that the film makes Harding more sympathetic than she was earlier (to me, that was Janney’s opinion about Harding, not what the film was doing). Did I feel bad about the childhood abuse? Yes, but she’s not a little kid anymore. To me, what it suggested is that despite all of these events, she hasn’t really learned anything and she’s more or less the same person she always was. After being banned from skating she undertook another series of similarly exploitative activities (boxing, e.g.), where the value was primarily sensationalistic and the aim was to exploit her previous reputation and keep her in the public eye so she could continue earning. Harding could certainly have pursued an education and while her conviction would have excluded her from certain careers and it would have been a difficult path, still think of it — she decided she would rather get beaten up in a ring in front of screaming people than get a GED? And then she attributes that situation not to her own preferences, but to what the viewer / audience wants. With her, it’s always excuses. This is also somehow American — and not a very attractive look. In the end, I found myself thinking she is lazy in a way that’s particularly American, and there’s a paradox there insofar as she was willing to train her body to ridiculous extremes but she couldn’t train (for lack of a better word) her soul.

    Finally, in contrast to you, I took away from the film that she was guiltier than they could prove. This is signaled directly at least once, e.g., when she’s practicing and Gillooly and Eckhardt are talking about their plans in her presence and she tells them she has “bigger shit to fry.” It is also signaled indirectly many times by Harding’s statements about most of the important turning points in her life: “that wasn’t my fault.”

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    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I hesitated to call the piece in “Deadspin” a review, as it seemed more an opinion piece about what she sees as the current outpouring of sympathy for Tonya Harding, including not only the movie, but also the “30 for 30” documentary and Allison Janney’s speech. I thought it was a very interesting read, especially as I hadn’t seen the recent documentary. There was also some context around background and lead-up to the 1994 Olympics which I wasn’t aware of, such as the relative performances of Harding and Kerrigan. I mean, I was thinking, “Why would someone go so far as to take out a skating rival” and this helped to give me some idea of the competition for endorsement money and maybe that there was a chance Harding wouldn’t make the Olympic team if Kerrigan skated at the Nationals.
      I agree that “I, Tonya” is not trying to be a documentary film and that the “Deadspin” writer may not have understood what the film was meant to be. The filmmakers did present all the various and contradictory stories, but my son and I both came out feeling more sympathetic towards Harding and believing that it is possible that she may not have known what was being plotted, beyond a plan to send letters, even though in the film the plans were discussed in front of her (according to Gillooly). Probably because the movie focused more on Harding and her background story than on anyone else, the sympathy flowed more towards her. Not sympathy for what she did or what she ignored, but at least for the circumstances which put her in a position where those events could happen or be allowed to happen. And while I’d love to know what really happened and who knew what, it is not as important as the lead-up to the “incident” and the varying versions of the truth.

      Intellectually, I get dark comedy. Emotionally, I just don’t. Every time I go to watch one, I laugh at some of it, but my overwhelming feeling is of sadness. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, as I appreciate a movie that makes me feel something. I found this movie really affecting and I am still thinking about it – even as I laugh at things like Harding turning to the camera with a shotgun in her hands and saying, “This definitely didn’t happen.” Those bits were really well done. The real story itself was so absurd that it does seem more like an old slapstick comedy, as you say.

      Harding’s poverty over the years was certainly shown in the film. I wonder how on earth her mother managed to pay the coaching fees, which are huge, on a waitress’ earnings. She must have been working all hours. I must have missed where endorsements were mentioned. I think, though, that while the movie wasn’t intended to be a documentary, having more of that context would have made Harding’s involvement in the attack more plausible for me. Definitely, though, since the movie was focusing on Harding’s story, talking about other skaters was not important. I thought it was interesting to think about the whole elitist skating world, though, and its potential impact on skaters other than Harding.

      As you say, the film does a great job in pointing out some of the attitudes in society that make these kinds of events possible, and yet it uses dark comedy to make us laugh at ourselves as well. It is really fascinating to look, for example, at the high priority we put on fame and athletic ability that won’t generally set you up for a good life. I see it in the kids’ hockey – some parents are pushing their kids so hard that they have little life outside of hockey, but the reality is that less than 1% of kids who play hockey make it to the NHL. Really an absurd way to spend a childhood when you think about it. It shocked me to hear that Harding was encouraged to quit school to focus only on skating – a very short-sighted decision.

      I found the whole story tragic and terribly sad, and yet with an almost inevitable ending given the circumstances. I did find that the film made me more sympathetic to Harding, not in terms of excusing her but in feeling so bad for her for the train wreck and what lead up to it. It’s like I always tell my kids. You want to think carefully about what you do because some things just can’t be undone and can have devastating consequences. What made me cry was watching her Olympic skate and all the drama. Robbie made me experience the emotions of knowing that your chance at success and respect is now gone. She made something that had seemed ridiculous at the time (the crying over the skate lace etc.) be experienced from Harding’s place of desperate emotion.
      I’ve seen a few interviews now with Harding and I agree that she does not really seem to have accepted responsibility for anything that happened to her, with “to her” being the operative words. I did read, though, that she eventually did get her GED and it sounds like in the present day she has managed to make a good life for herself and her family.

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      • It sounded to me like Mrs. Harding used child support money — that that was part of it. It was also stated that Rawlinson was coaching her for a reduced rate (that scene where she says she coaches all the other students in order to be able afford to coach Tonya). I’m also guessing people that poor might qualify for Medicaid (might pay for inhalers, anyway). re: endorsements — the one that I specifically remember clearly was her saying “my place in such and such competition didn’t get endorsements, it got me a job at [name of diner]”. But I think there was one other one (now my memory is fading).

        I guess what I appreciate about dark comedies is their brutal description, that they state things the way they are, so that they can’t help being absurd on some level. Thinking about it, several of my all time favorites (Fargo, American Beauty) are probably dark comedies. They really don’t make me cry, and lately i seem to cry at the drop of a hat, in comparison to earlier, anyway. When they get really violent, though, I don’t care for that. I do remember seeing “War of the Roses” as a teenager and just being horrified and thinking “if mom knew i saw this, she would have a cat.”

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    • You’re welcome! Just before I went into the movie on Thursday evening, I saw that you’d written about “I. Tonya” and had to stop myself from looking before I went in! I deliberately didn’t read your review until after I’d written mine. I’ll pop over and comment later. Thanks for your previous comment. I’ll come back to that later too, as unfortunately I have to go into work.

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