During her career as a figure skater, Tonya Harding attracted attention for her impressive athleticism, as well as for her blue collar background and tumultuous life off the ice. But her career ended when her personal life collided with her professional career, and her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was assaulted by Harding’s ex-husband’s associates. Last year’s Tonya Harding biopic, I, Tonya, purports to deliver up a black comedy about her life.
I was too young to remember the media circus over Tonya Harding. Though I knew the basics of the story–mainly, that Nancy Kerrigan was attacked–I really didn’t know much about anything else, so I went into the movie without any solid expectations. Overall, I found the movie fascinating and extremely well-acted, though I personally question whether it really is a black comedy.
Australian actress Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad) stars as the volatile Harding, with Sebastian Stan (The Martian) as her sleazy ex-husband and Alison Janney (Mom) as her abusive mother. The casting director must be a fellow Boardwalk Empire fan, with Julianne Nicholson appearing as Harding’s longtime coach and Bobby Cannavale as a reporter who followed the story.
Everyone does an excellent job–in fact, Janney won an Oscar for her performance–and I think that is probably the film’s greatest strength. A nice emphasis on this pops up in the credits, which feature actual footage of the real people depicted. It’s uncanny how well the actors capture their mannerisms.
The film is also interested in depicting the conflicting stories each party tells about what actually happened. The result is that the film is a pseudo-documentary (kind of like The Office). Though I’ve heard it said that the movie is sympathetic to Harding, I didn’t necessarily find it an overly fawning depiction of her. It doesn’t shy away from depicting her horrific childhood and her toxic relationship with her husband, as well as how the skating world stigmatized her as “white trash.” But it also doesn’t whitewash Harding’s own temper, tendency to wallow in self-pity, or inability to admit when she was wrong. Really, nobody makes it out of this movie looking good.
Though I enjoyed the movie, I do think it had some flaws. One was, namely, though the movie was really funny in spots, I had a hard time thinking of it as a comedy, solely because of the subject matter. I think most people who know me would say I have a dark sense of humor–it’s a recurring joke everywhere I have ever worked–but a lot of what the movie depicts, from the unprovoked attack on Kerrigan to the abuse Harding endured from her husband and mother, is just not funny.
My other complaint is that the movie itself is fascinating–the plot is so bizarre and flashy that it doesn’t really need to be amplified any more than it is–but the director seems to have gone overboard, at least to my taste, with making it an homage to Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking style.
Now, I love Scorsese movies, as I have written about before here and here, but at a certain point, I, Tonya’s mimicking of his frenetic editing style, use of classic rock, overlapping narration, and breaking the fourth wall just sometimes seemed a bit overdone and even distracting. It was almost as if the movie was trying too hard to convince me of how zany the story was, which really wasn’t necessary because it’s pretty unhinged on its own merit.
I found that more true in the first hour, which depicts Harding’s childhood and the early years of her marriage and career. The second hour, which follows the fallout from the attack on Kerrigan, was much less aggressive with its Scorsesesque touches, and I feel like it was a better movie for it.
Overall, I found I, Tonya a compelling movie about what has to be one of the strangest episodes in American sports history. It’s certainly not for the weak-stomached, but if you don’t mind the violence and profanity, it is a excellent behind-the-scenes look at a complex athlete.
Recommended for those who enjoy sports movies or biopics. Please follow this link to our online library catalog for more information on I, Tonya or to place a hold.
What did you think about I, Tonya? What controversial sports figure would you want to see as the subject of a biopic? ? What have you been watching lately? Tell us in the comments!