“America, they want someone to love; but they want someone to hate, too.” These words, concisely distilling the public’s obsession with celebrity scandal, are spoken by Tonya Harding, former Olympic figure skater and one-time champion competitor, in director Craig Gillespie’s outstanding new biopic, I, Tonya. For those who are late to the game; back in 1994, Harding found herself at the center of one of the most sensational scandals in sports history after being linked to a physical attack on her teammate Nancy Kerrigan shortly before the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. In the seemingly endless media circus that surrounded ‘the incident’ (as it is referred to in the film) and its far-reaching consequences, Tonya Harding became a walking punch line and arguably the most-hated woman in America. In the aftermath, she was sentenced by the court to probation, community service, ordered to pay a large fine, and forced to resign from the United States Figure Skating Association, effectively ending her career. Twenty three years later, I, Tonya gives Harding a compelling confessional with which to tell the whole sordid story, and it is a tale based on true events that’s as crazy as any absurdist, darkly comic fiction you could make up.
With a tight script based on dialogue from recent interviews by the director with both Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, plus archived interviews, You Tube videos and meticulous research, I, Tonya traces Harding’s life and career from age 4 to 44. Growing up in a broken home (her mother’s fifth child from her fourth marriage) Harding’s focused passion for skating took her out of her reality of incessant beratement by her stage-mother-from-hell, LaVona Golden (an astounding performance by Allison Janney) and transformed her into a disciplined athlete who didn’t take any shit from anybody. Performing in homemade costumes because she couldn’t afford to buy them, and constantly standing up for her right to compete and be judged on her ability despite not fitting the mold of a squeaky clean all-American girl, it’s exhilarating to watch her come up in the sport (Harding was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition) while gaining a voyeuristic perspective on the circumstances that shaped her complicated character.
As Harding hones her craft and becomes an increasingly successful, award-winning competitor, her already volatile relationship with Gilooly becomes even more physically abusive, and the film’s depiction of domestic violence is very realistic, harrowing and difficult to watch. By the time Gilooly and his half-witted friend Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) begin brainstorming a plan that will ‘intimidate’ Olympic teammate Nancy Kerrigan, who is perceived as Harding’s stiffest competition for Olympic Gold, it is already too late to stop the downward spiral.
Despite the violence and serious subject matter, I Tonya is a wildly enjoyable ride, filled with many hilarious moments thanks to the absurdist situations and excellent comic timing from the top-shelf group of actors cast in this strange-but-true story. A well-curated film soundtrack can always advance the action and evoke keen emotions in ways that dialogue alone cannot, so it’s worth noting that, along with a terrific original score by Peter Nashel, I, Tonya makes brilliant use of popular radio hits of the era such as Cliff Richard’s “Devil Woman,” Hot Chocolate’s “Everyone’s a Winner,” Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ cover of Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger” sound tracking the film’s closing credits as they scroll over archival footage of Tonya Harding skating in competition, which is unexpectedly quite moving.
Expect I, Tonya to garner a considerable number of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress for Robbie and Best Supporting Actress for Janney (at the very least), and Best Director.
Opening Nationally on Friday December 8th, 2017, The Worley Gig Gives I, Tonya Five out of Five Stars. Watch the Trailer Below: