Does the media tell the truth? I can think of at least one person who doesn’t think so. You can check out my essay on the danger of a corrupt news media through the lens of Citizen Kane, Network, and Nightcrawler, if you want some heavy reading. Whether or not you want to get into a debate on how trustworthy the news is, we can all agree that even if the news is as trustworthy as can be, there are still some exceptions. And if you ask Tonya Harding, or anyone involved in the making of I, Tonya, they can all assure you that the news stations screwed up big time on at least one occasion. That one occasion is with the person and story of Tonya Harding.
I, Tonya tells the side of the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan story that the news medias didn’t cover. The film serves as a short biopic of Harding, as we watch her grow up to be the best figure-skater in the world. Her mother is a cruel and unloving woman who sees her daughter as someone to make profit from. Jeff Gillooly is Tonya’s first boyfriend and husband, and just like with her mother, Tonya gets caught in an abusive relationship with Jeff. After Tonya becomes the first figure-skater to successfully complete a triple axel, her sights are set on Olympic gold, but receives consistently unfair scores from judges who dislike her background. After Tonya expresses to Jeff her frustration about not getting fair scores, Jeff and his friend Shawn decide to take matters into their own hands.
Before I get into the simply brilliant balance of comedy and intensely dark drama, I’m first going to touch on two absolutely outstanding performances. Margot Robbie carries this film as Tonya Harding, and it’s easily the best dramatic work of her career (Harley Quinn is still arguably better). With the way this screenplay is structured, Tonya Harding is actually a very difficult character to play. This is a character who is played the victim throughout the film, and when that happens, it becomes exceedingly easy for the character to become forgettable. Thankfully, with Robbie in the role, Tonya Harding becomes anything but a forgettable character, which is ultimately the point of the whole movie. Robbie plays the perfect amount of sass, the perfect amount of badass, and the perfect amount of relatability where this is a character our brains lock onto. The movie finishes, and because of Robbie, you want a whole extra movie about Tonya Harding.
Robbie’s isn’t the only great performance. Sebastian Stan is fantastic as Jeff Gillooly and Paul Walter Hauser is a minor scene-stealer as Shawn Eckhart. Much credit goes to director Craig Gillespie for this, but Hauser plays Shawn in a way that makes him alternatingly hilarious and disgusting, despicable, and pathetic. The major scene-stealer of the film, however, is Allison Janney. Janney got a really great character as Tonya Harding’s mother; in fact, Steven Rogers (no, not Captain America) even wrote the part with Janney in mind. This is a character who is wholly despicable, and all these awards Janney is picking up for the role show just how great she is at being the worst mother in history. Such a great performance.
Craig Gillespie, who’s previously given us Lars and the Real Girl and Fright Night, is the director responsible for this brilliant symphony of comedy, dark drama, character, commentary, and entertainment. Building off Rogers’ fantastic screenplay, Gillespie utilizes a wide variety of narrative techniques to tell this story. There are character interviews, real events and conversations are recreated, the fourth wall is broken; the list goes on. It’s an almost disorienting way to tell a story, so much so, it’s reminiscent of The Big Short. Where I, Tonya is brilliant, and probably the only place where The Big Short lacked, is its characters.
As I’ve already mentioned, the performances in this film are absolutely outstanding. I don’t know if I can stress that enough. But where the brilliance was truly struck was with how often the performers and the director worked together with the screenplay to create these fantastic characters. With the exception of Allison Janney’s LaVona Golden, each character in this film is multi-dimensional. Each character makes contradicting decisions, and several elements of the plot work together to make each of those decisions valid. Rogers’ screenplay is fantastically conceived and executed, but it was when Gillespie got on set with Robbie, Stan, Hauser, and Janney that this movie came to life.
Much like the true story for Tonya Harding, there is an element of this movie that is unfulfilling. The ending to this film could only be what it is in real life, and that ending to the story was frankly very disappointing. In some ways, emotionally, this is also true of the film. Despite all the ups and downs during the movie, you’re not exhilarated when it concludes. That said, the conclusion is exceedingly satisfying and justifying. Because how this movie is truly brilliant in its storytelling is by making the telling of the story its triumph. And its all because the news probably screwed it up in 1994.
I give I, Tonya an 11.8, 11.7, 11.8, 11.7, 11.7, 11.8, 11.8, 11.6, and 11.7.
(AKA an 8.5/10.)