Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A Reel Review: I, TONYA

In 1994, figure skater Tonya Harding had everything going for her. At just 23 years old, she was a skating champion who had already made history by becoming the first woman to land the famed triple-axel, and was on her way to her second Olympic games. Then, she became implicated in an assault on her competition, Nancy Kerrigan, and her life became a media frenzy and a punch-line for all time. How and why she went from a champion to an outcast is the basis for Craig Gillespie’s I, TONYA.

Harding (Margot Robbie) becomes a famous figure skater despite her rough upbringing, which includes abuse by her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her tough-love mother LaVona (Allison Janney). With just six weeks to go before her second Winter Olympics, she is implicated in an assault on her competition Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), and has her life turned upside-down forever.

Based on thousands of interviews done on the real-life Harding and now ex-husband Gillooly, I, TONYA is a film which has two distinct missions; first, to tell her life story, and second, to seemingly explain the motives behind what would ultimately be one of the dumbest decisions in all of sports history. The film follows Tonya as a talented figure skater from the age of three, as she battles a tough industry which wants their skaters to look and act like princesses, and not girls who swear, hunt, chop wood, and fix car engines. This is an essential element to Tonya’s story, as her rough background, which includes beatings from her husband and mother, forge the character who feels she can never get a fair shot.

Justification is the name of the game, and it works. Gillooly’s initial plan to send threatening letters to Kerrigan, with the help of his idiot friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) comes from a place of just wanting to help Tonya out…and when the idea turns into an actual assault, all parties involved seem as shocked as the rest of the world would be. But director Craig Gillespie does such fine work in making this a human story, with everyone getting their due, that the motives behind everything are relatable, and amazingly sympathetic. Everyone’s actions boil down to downright stupidity and growing up with a lack of love, and that seems to be the true message of I, TONYA.

Gillespie tells his story through the eyes and words of his main players, with Tonya, LaVona, and Gillooly facing the camera and telling their side of things. The film is snappy, funny, packed with rock music from the era and has a tremendous sense of energy and momentum. The skating scenes are tremendous; many are filmed in long, unbroken takes and drop us right on the ice, and the re-creations of actual events, especially the ones we’ve seen on TV many times over the past two decades, are excellent and stunning. The scenes of abuse where Tonya is taking a beating from her husband or mother are tough to watch, and the assault on Kerrigan is also a pulse-pounder.

Margot Robbie is a joy to watch as Tonya at all times; whether she’s going through training, skating, taking a punch, or dealing with the pain of a mother who doesn’t love her…Robbie delivers. Sebastian Stan takes on Gillooly in both look and mannerisms, and Paul Walter Hauser is practically a clone of Eckhardt. But the film is stolen by Allison Janney, who as Tonya’s chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, swearing-like-a-drunken-sailor mother is one of the most despicable characters of all cinema; first to throw a punch at her kid and last to ever say “I love you”.

Both sides of the story are told, and no one comes out looking innocent by movie’s end. Tonya’s knowledge of the assault on Kerrigan is left open for endless debate, but at the very least the world should have a better understanding of the human being that was, and still is underneath that rough exterior. Craig Gillespie has created one of the most unique sports films of all time here, one that can inspire despite being about one of the most controversial figures of all time.


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