I, Tonya

A modern Olympian turned Greek tragedy

The biopic has developed a certain level of grandeur over the years. Almost always “prestige” pics, such films go straight after the Oscars, with actors bringing their A game and then some to show a person’s life, tragic flaws, heroic triumphs, and everything between. They have one thing in common—a certain reverence for their subject. I, Tonya, is not that biopic.

Extraordinary talent and drive brought her to the pinnacle of success, only to lose everything because of the cesspool of her roots and her own poor choices.

Yes, the film is more sympathetic to Tonya Harding than public perception has been over the last twenty-odd years, but that’s not hard to do. Any film that shows a little girl crying and begging her father not to leave while sprightly music plays in the background is not taking the traditional route to the public’s heartstrings.

Constructed around a series of real interviews with Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly, and Tonya’s mother, LaVona Golden, the film frames various chapters of the tale like a mockumentary, using reenactments of those interviews, and even breaks the fourth wall during the action itself (where characters talk directly to the viewer). Starting from the moment her mother essentially forced a local skating teacher to accept four-year-old Harding in a class for older children, Harding’s story is one of grit, poor choices, abuse, and broken relationships, and yet the filmmakers strike a jaunty tone, mining absurdities for laughs as much as sympathy.

All three narrators—as well as reenactments of an older interview with the late Shawn Eckhardt—come across as people with their own agendas, unreliable and yet frank. How much do you believe each one? That’s what screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie want you to decide.

Between all the domestic violence, the emotional abuse, and the insistent portrayal of the figure skating establishment as being against Tonya for not conforming to their image of the classy, wholesome American figure skating darling, audiences are pretty squarely in Tonya’s camp by the time The Attack comes into the picture. The film takes the position that Tonya only wanted to mail Nancy Kerrigan threatening letters to throw her off her game—letters like those Tonya herself received.

I was 11 years old when Tonya Harding burst onto the national conscience as the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition—the perfect age to fall under the spell of figure skating. My nine-year-old sister Tanya immediately claimed Tonya Harding as her favorite skater, which meant I had to choose someone else (laws of sisterhood and all). My choice, Kristi Yamaguchi, went on to win Olympic gold in 1992 and promptly retired, which left me without a dog in the fight for 1994 and the epic showdown between Harding and Kerrigan. I remember thinking Tonya was probably guilty, but I didn’t like Nancy Kerrigan much either. My 13-year-old self just didn’t buy all the “America’s new sweetheart” stuff CBS was selling.

As Harding, Margot Robbie is captivating. Vulnerable, tough, relentless, hopeful—she is the main reason Tonya becomes such a sympathetic character. I’m not at all surprised she earned an Oscar nomination for the performance. As Harding’s mother, LaVona, Allison Janney is her ultimate foil. LaVona makes so-called Tiger Mothers look cuddly, but she’s chillingly believable anyway.

The rampant, rancid language throughout the film will turn some viewers off, even if it accurately reflects the environment in which Tonya grew up. I personally disagreed with the film’s implication that Tonya’s image—at least on the skating rink—was somehow more “white trashy” than the other girls’. In 1991 and 1992, all the major female figure skaters except Kerrigan sported poufy bangs and fluffy scrunchie-bound ponytails, including Yamaguchi, Midori Ito (1992 silver medalist and first woman to land a triple axel ever), and—even later—gold medalist Oksana Baiul. Their costumes were all glittery, flounced confections. To suggest there was something “off” at the time about Harding’s public image is just fantasy.

Ultimately, the whodunit is not the real point of the film. This is a modern Olympian turned Greek tragedy—about someone whose extraordinary talent and drive brought her to the pinnacle of success, only to lose everything because of the cesspool of her roots and her own poor choices. As Tonya describes it, she was overlooked for years, loved for a moment, reviled for a season, and ultimately became a punch line. “It was like being abused all over again.” Food for thought in how we objectify public figures.

I, Tonya is rated R for scenes of violence, including intense spousal abuse, as well as vicious vulgar language.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.