But the film, with its glib, flashy tone, wants to have it both ways: It wants us to sympathize with Harding, who unapologetically tells her story in I’m-over-it flashback, and to laugh at her – even as she endures physical abuse.
One of the most hard moves in professional figure skating competitions is a triple axel, which requires the skater to leap forward from the outside edge of one skate blade, rotate three and a half times in the air, and land on the back outside edge of the opposite foot. At the time, America rejected Tonya Harding for being low class. It was an excellent break from reality.
The very real story was like an American nightmare of competition at the time and indeed involved so much stupidity and self-delusion that you can understand why writer Steven Rogers (who did the interviews) and director Craig Gillespie want to adhere, as much as possible, to sarcasm if not outright comedy.
What stays with you, at the end of “I, Tonya”, is a haunting moment in Robbie’s performance. Although she doesn’t look much like Harding, Margot Robbie plays the roughneck skater. If it begins to drag as it nears the finish line, Harding’s story ran out of fuel too, as we collectively cast her aside when we were all done with her. Since their accounts don’t match up, it’s left to the audience to decide who they believe. However, when The Hollywood Reporter asked Robbie how she would have responded if the reporter had phrased his question more tactfully, she said, “No one’s ever abused their power with me within this industry, but I am a woman in the world and I have seen and dealt with this a million times in the world”.
The movie doesn’t sugar coat things.
Harding has long maintained she neither knew about nor agreed to ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and his friend Shawn Eckardt’s plan to bash Kerrigan’s knee with a baton.
In fact, the film re-enacts scenes taken directly from a 30 for 30 documentary about Harding. “I, Tonya” suggests that, in some ways, it’s Tonya who is the victim. Her downfall came when her by-then ex-husband orchestrated an attack on Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan – a thug smacked her leg with a pipe. Its star and co-producer Margot Robbie strangely excels at direct address to the camera-as in The Big Short, when Robbie took a bubble-bath to better concentrate the minds of viewers while she explained the concept of the subprime mortgages. Off the ice it’s another story, one that will eventually dethrone her for the life of the game. Robbie’s look of absolute joy in this scene is downright triumphant. Sebastian Stan is her on-again/off-again boyfriend/husband Jeff Gilooly. “I, Tonya” ventures past an empathetic portrait of this woman into transforming her into a mythic anti-heroine, whose warrior spirit can not be vanquished.
Robbie’s performance is a marvel of a disappearing act, with the Australian actress transforming herself beneath a veneer of tough-girl makeup, crunchy hair spray and the Oregon-born skater’s flat Pacific Northwest accent.
Very few sports movies that aren’t about boxing get nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category, let alone win the Oscar for it. “Chariots of Fire, ” about two runners in the 1924 Olympics, is the last non-boxing sports film to take home that Best Picture award, way back in 1982.
I’m a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. I’ve worked in broadcast television for 20 years. Sometimes I’ve had a glass wine when I should have had a glass of water. Which brings us full circle to the overall context of the film’s release and the potential motives behind its public relations rollout.
So in an effort to write an Honest Review, I’ll always list the external factors that might affect my enjoyment of the movie.