Released Limited December 8, 2017
Released Wide January 19, 2018
Rated R (Language, Violence, Some Sexual Content)
Directed by Craig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl, The Finest Hours)
Written by Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Stepmom)
Cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis (The Drop, Triple 9)
Music by Peter Nashel (Lie to Me, Marco Polo)
Edited by Tatiana S. Riegel (The Men Who Stare at Goats, The Way Way Back)
Produced by and Starring Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, Suicide Squad)
Also Produced by Tom Ackerley, Bryan Unkeless (The Hunger Games, Bright), and Steven Rogers (Lost on Purpose, Love the Coopers)
Also Starring Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Logan Lucky), Allison Janney (Juno, The Help), Julianne Nicholson (August: Orange County, Black Mass), Paul Walter Hauser (Betas, Kingdom), Bobby Cannavale (Ant-Man, Mr. Robot), Caitlin Carver (Paper Towns, Heroes Reborn), and Mckenna Grace (Fuller House, Gifted)
In interviews, Tonya Harding (Robbie), Jeff Gillooly (Stan), LaVona Golden (Janney), Diane Rawlinson (Nicholson), Shawn Eckardt (Hauser), and Martin Maddox (Cannavale) all have something to say about the infamous incident, the knee-whacking of Harding’s rival skater, Nancy Kerrigan (Carver). Each has his or her own point of view. And . . . well . . . they don’t line up exactly. Harding says she knew nothing about what was going down. Gillooly says he thought Shawn was just going to send Kerrigan some hate mail. Eckardt says he’s a terrorism expert who orchestrated the whole thing with Gillooly. Harding says she’s a victim of abuse from her mother (Golden) and Gillooly. Golden and Gillooly both say they’re good people and would never abuse poor Tonya. Maddox is and was a slimy journalist and looks at the whole thing with a bit too much glee.
I, Tonya is, in many ways, a true-life Shakespearean tragedy, Shakespearean because the downfalls of its characters originate from their poor choices, though some might view it, as Tonya does, as a Greek tragedy, because powers out of Harding’s control also result in her fate: the powers of elitists; abusive, manipulative people around Tonya; and the ever-fickle court of public opinion.
The title of this movie refers to the 1934 novel by Robert Graves, I, Claudius, which presents the real historical figure Tiberius Claudius Drusus as a poorly considered, hunched over, stammering, socially impaired royal, kept hidden from the public eye, even though he is in line to be Emperor of Rome, because he doesn’t represent the pinnacle of perfection like a mighty Roman Emperor should. Yet when Claudius does eventually become Emperor, after much turmoil in Rome, he becomes one of the most adept, efficient rulers in Roman history. I don’t know just how much of Claudius the filmmakers intend us to see here, but I found many parallels.
However, I, Tonya also asks us to think about this story at a more complex level, even beyond the tragedy, and even if that tragedy was previously unknown to us. The movie explores two major, thought-provoking ideas that screenwriter Steven Rogers and director Craig Gillespie seem to have found intriguing at the heart of the story of one-time world-class figure skater Tonya Harding, who had nearly faded from the pop culture consciousness before this movie, despite the infamous heights of her knee-whacking scandal, which took place in the days leading up to Tonya’s second Olympics in 1994.
The first theme is that the way we perceive things can become self-fulfilling. The public, as a general whole, doesn’t have a very nuanced understanding of people and situations. Because of this, they try to relegate everyone to either a good side or a bad side. They need heroes and villains, and they need every situation to be a clash of good guys versus bad guys. Due to this need for heroes and villains, the public ended up holding high Nancy Kerrigan, not a sweetheart herself, and treating Tonya Harding perhaps more harshly than she deserved.
However, it’s not just the public who has this perception. As a rule, each and every one of us tends to look at things that way as well, in whatever manner that may be. Tonya sees herself as a hero, and she sees just about everyone else as a villain, which often causes her to be rude and lash out, in turn causing judges and other skaters to dislike her and causing her to be a poor chooser of people to keep in her life. These things aid in her downfall. Yet she was raised this way by a mother who felt like her daughter needed to be constantly berated and put down in order to perform well, which stunts and mutates Tonya’s emotional development as she matures. In addition, Tonya’s progression in her career as a skater is often barred by a group of elitist judges in the skating community who feel Tonya does not represent the things they wish to represent, does not belong, and so they, in the end quite successfully, maintain their ideals by getting the supposedly prim and proper Kerrigan rather than the crude and low-class Harding.
The second theme is that what we understand as the truth of a story relies on who’s telling the story, who documents it, and, often, what we want to believe. When the big incident went down, the investigators involved couldn’t be sure what the truth was, since each party involved told a different story. So they had to go with one narrative, causing some involved to be unjustly treated. The elites in the Olympic and skating communities went with the narrative of evil Tonya not because it was definitely true but because it suited their agendas. For a similar reason, the press also pursued the same narrative. On the flip side, to hear each person involved tell it, they were complete victims of the whole ordeal, innocent, and that is certainly not the case.
Director Gillespie, screenwriter Rogers, and film editor Riegel successfully accomplish portraying their intended themes through peppy pacing, fun plot structuring that includes light-footed flashbacks, film editing that deftly combines a normal and straightforward plot through-line with the idea of the unreliable narrator, liberal fourth wall breaking, and faux documentary footage, especially interviews that regularly conflict.
Some audience members may leave this movie a bit unfulfilled by the lack of the Hollywood glamor, pop, and pizzazz movies like this usually posses, or they might leave unsatisfied by the lack of verdict, resolution, or closure. However, I left I, Tonya feeling that it shows people in a telling, truthful light, even if – and partially because – it doesn’t pretend to know the truth of everything that happened here, better getting at the messy core of humanity, which in and of itself gives the movie much more value in my eyes.
Watch this movie for its themes, or its creative filmmaking, or the draw of its story. Or watch it for some outstanding performances by Robbie, her best yet, with a subtly guarded demeanor; Alison Janney, chewing scenery and withering foliage, animals, and people alike with her glares; Sebastian Stan, creepily effective as a huge sleazebag; and Hauser as a delusional basement-dweller who grasps poorly and destructively at any chance for more, or something, or anything. These actors disappeared into their roles, and I swear I have seen each and every one of their characters in real life.
My only two real complaints lie in the music choices and the CGI.
For the music choices, I’m not talking about the kinds of song selections. I actually really enjoy a lot of the chosen tunes, which aptly reflect Tony and her story. If you looked at my playlist on any given day, you might find some of these songs, or at least the artists performing them, like “Devil Woman” by Cliff Richard, “Shooting Star” by Bad Company, “Romeo and Juliet” by Dire Straits, “Goodbye Stranger” by Supertramp, “Barracuda” by Heart, and “Sleeping Bag” by ZZ Top. Rather, my complaint is that the tunes are a bit hard on the nose and not subtle at all, appearing at the most obvious times.
As for the CGI, it’s not too noticeable, but the filmmakers used slightly subpar CGI to recreate some of Harding’s most difficult figure skating moves. One of these, shown in the film, is the famous triple axel. Tonya Harding was the first American woman to ever pull it off in competition, the second woman to ever do so in the world, and she’s one of only eight women to have ever done it since. These types of moves are so difficult, in fact, that the filmmakers couldn’t persuade any stunt performers to pull them off. So they used CGI, which is fine, except in this case it really stands out as full body CGI and creates a distinct uncanny valley effect.
Otherwise, I, Tonya is a great film in my book.
I’m going to give I, Tonya a 90%. I highly recommend it.
Ethan…well on your way to Ebertness. You’re deciphering the details of the tell tale story, while also capturing the true story. Inherent in the title is the literary comparison, but your expansion brings it closer to the reader. I truly am not sure if I’d considered seeing this prior to reading your review…now, I will definitely see I, Tonya.
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Thanks for the kind words! I, Tonya is definitely worth your time.
One of the most thoughtful comments regarding this movie that I have had the pleasure of reading. Thanks.
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Thanks for reading!
Great movie! Alison Janney should definitely snatch up the Oscar for her role here.
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