I,TONYA is flat-out brilliantly done, as good a biopic as has come down the line in years. The 2017 knockout was perceptively written by Steven Rogers, strikingly directed by Craig Gillespie, perfectly cast and beautifully acted.
“It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.”
Emerging from a lifetime sulfur pit of abuse, in the early 1990’s an Oregon ‘redneck’ named Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), a raw bundle of natural athletic power crossed with a badger’s tenacity, seizes the attention of a story-hungry public with her dynamic figure skating style and combative personality. Raised under the lash of her harridan mother, Lavona Golden (Allison Janney), enmeshed in a battering marriage to jerk loser Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), helped by infinitely patient coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), Tonya is ultimately positioned to compete against angelic rival Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Thanks to a monumental bungle arranged by Jeff and his beyond-loser pal Shaun Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), after years of grit against the odds, Harding hits the ice on the international stage as a world-class bad joke. “I was loved for a minute, then I was hated. Then I was just a punch line.”
The direction and writing employ a black comedy approach to “a story populated solely by boobs”, announcing at the start with a title card saying “Based on irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” Throughout, characters break the 4th-wall to give their versions of events to the audience, and we’re left to sift it and come to our own conclusions. Within this mockumentary framework, laced with the right degree of profanity and loaded with laughs over the cascading idiocy, the pathetic white trash milieu that spawns aggressive dolts takes it in the kisser, but there’s an underlay of compassion that comes across as well, given proof that the society they exist in gets it’s priorities from the boob-tube. On the heels (or whacked knee) of the Harding media frenzy came the O.J. circus and the Iraq War coverage travesty. Now look where we’re at. *
To shine under Gillespie’s breakneck direction and Rogers excruciatingly funny script, you couldn’t get a better cast. Sebastian Stan’s hair-trigger Jeff Gillooly, part-glib/part-dunce, and Paul Walter Hauser’s sublimely moronic fabulist Shaun Eckhardt are so real it hurts. As soft-spoken trainer Diane Rawlinson, Julianne Nicholson brings some dignified grace notes into the mash-up.
Allison Janney hit her career-high as the calculating and vicious LaVona, a Mother From Hell you could scare goblins with. She swept away with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress (her nearest competition was Laurie Metcalf, equally marvelous in Lady Bird, as another formidable slice-of-life Mom from across the tracks, albeit one with a heart). Janney channels a river of spite into the role, but wisely never overplays—not all monsters have fangs.
Robbie trained intensively for four months to get into convincing skating shape, with pro doubles and excellently-grafted special effects CGI’d in: the arena moves work seamlessly. Though she’s slimmer and five inches taller than Harding, de-glammed from her bewitching movie-star beauty through makeup and a great choice of wigs to approach Tonya’s tough-cookie cuteness (sexy in a danger-zone way), her carriage and voice make the match a ringer: magnetic Margot knocks it out of the park (rink). Her trapped anguish in the courtroom scene is masterful, more proof that she’s in the front rank of today’s bumper crop of remarkable actresses.
Filmed primarily in Georgia, for a trim $11,000,000, grossing $54,000,000. With Bobby Cannavale (having a great time as a paparazzi sleaze, “a reporter for Hard Copy, a pretty crappy show that ‘legitimate’ news outlets looked down on — and then became.”), Bojana Novakovic (coach Dody Teachman) and Ricky Russert (an intense new guy to watch for, as Shane Stant, the clueless clobberer). Maizie Smith plays Tonya at 3½, Mckenna Grace takes over as Tonya from 8 to 12. Jason Davis is the had-enough father, Al Harding and Caitlin Carver is the hard-to-read Nancy Kerrigan.
Music score by Peter Nashel features a pinpoint selection of nearly two dozen pop-rock songs from the period, polished off by Siouxie and the Banshees dead-on “The Passenger”. Marvelous film editing credits Tatiana S. Riegel. 119 minutes.
* “The haters always say, ‘Tonya, tell the truth!’ There’s no such thing as truth.… It’s bullshit. Everyone has their own truth, and life just does whatever the fuck it wants.” Harding to Simpson to Bagdad and back. What if a dumbed-down, perpetually angry and ripped-off public, tens of millions of them with I.Q.s in the Gillooly-Eckhardt-Stant range, fell for the spiel-spell of a 24-7 ‘news’ cycle of utter horse manure that had the ability to, say, help propel a con artist into high office? But that would never happen….