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