I, Tonya

                You couldn’t make this stuff up.  An Olympic hopeful figure skater accused of arranging to physically injure a competitor?  It sounds more like a Mafioso movie.  But yes, it actually happened, here, in the good ol’ U.S. of A., in January of 1994.  Even a generation later, this story is still a head-shaker.  And it makes perfect fodder for the movie “based on real events”…but not really a documentary.

                Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) always wanted to be an ice skater.  She started taking lessons when she was three years old.  But she didn’t exactly have a model home life.  Her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney) was physically and emotionally abusive.  Her father left.  Tonya dropped out of high school and got married to Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), who also beat her.  But she also hit back.

                No, this doesn’t really sync with the typical picture of figure skaters, all composed and graceful, with every movement under control.  Tonya Harding lived an out-of-control life and still managed, somehow, to distinguish herself in a tight-circled exclusive subculture that openly considered her “white trash.”  But her athleticism couldn’t be denied:  she was the first American female to successfully land a triple axel in competition.   Despite her complaints about the judges’ subjective bias against her, she was still a legitimate contender for the U.S. Olympic team.

                And then came the famous “incident.” How did this happen, exactly?  Well, the story goes that Jeff Gillooly’s friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), arranged it.  Calling himself a “bodyguard,” he also claimed international espionage skills (but he was actually a slacker who still lived with his Mom).  He paid two hoodlums to arrange to hurt Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya’s primary American competitor.  A well-placed whack with a baton, just above the knee.

                But Shawn and his two paid thugs were quickly apprehended, and they turned on Gillooly as the one who masterminded the plan, and he turned on Tonya, claiming she knew about it beforehand.  She insisted that she only knew about it afterwards, but later pleaded guilty to hindering the investigation, and now she’s banned for life from further competition.

                The movie makes it all believable, which is a testament to the strong cast.  But the screenplay calls for the characters to occasionally make asides to the viewers, which creates a certain informal effect, but risks the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.  And there are so many F-bombs that the clarity of the dialogue is affected.

                Nonetheless, it’s the train wreck that we can’t help but watch.  Though told from Tonya Harding’s perspective, it’s not entirely sympathetic.  Sometimes she indulged in blaming everyone else.  Sometimes she got in the way of her own ambitions.  And she certainly didn’t always make smart choices.  But we can’t help but sympathize a little for someone with so many obstacles to overcome, including her own duplicity.

                Margot Robbie is excellent in the title role, and Allison Janney is a force all her own as the overbearing/disapproving Mom.  Seeing the movie won’t answer the most important questions (what did she know and when did she know it?).  But it will bring this ludicrous sequined melodrama back to the forefront of the pop culture scene, just in time for the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association