Oscar piece is unbalanced, but gripping
I, Tonya tells the true story of figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) leading up to the 1994 Olympics. The film recounts the brutal attack of rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, an attempt to remove her from the competition. The story would become one of the most talked about scandals in sports history.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire film is Sebastian Stan’s performance as Jeff Gillooly, Harding’s ex-husband. Stan, who is mostly known for his role as the Winter Soldier in Marvel films, shines in every scene. While he hasn’t received any award nominations, he certainly deserves them. It is possible that his performance is remarkable simply because he hasn’t previously had the room to showcase his dramatic talents. Whatever the reason, Stan holds his own on screen next to his notable castmates, including Allison Janney (as LaVona, Tonya’s mother) and Julianne Nicholson (as Tonya’s trainer, Diane Rawlinson).
Stan manages to create a believable character that simultaneously loves and abuses Harding, and even takes part in the plot to cheat Harding’s way to the top. Stan does it all with such charisma that the viewer actually has empathy for him even though he’s one of the film’s villains.
This is where the most interesting part of I, Tonya hides. The film tells the story with the intention of making the audience feel for Harding instead of seeing her as the villain—and it works.
Screenwriter Steven Rogers conducted extensive interviews with all those involved in “the incident” with Nancy Kerrigan and found that none of their stories lined up, so the film is organized with the same logic. The story is told through a series of acted interviews that appear as cutaways throughout the film, with each character telling their version of the events. This method works exceptionally well in showcasing the overall mystery, chaos, and confusion surrounding “the incident.”
By heavily showcasing the abuse brought on Tonya by her mother and husband, as well as the criticism from the entire nation, I, Tonya paints Harding as the victim of the story.
However, I, Tonya falters during these moments of abuse. In promotional material for the film, the quote “The ‘Goodfellas’ of figure skating” was used as a main selling point. It is true that the film plays a bit like a Martin Scorsese gangster picture—but perhaps too much so. Some of the comedy in the film is overdone and unnecessary. But more than that, the film seems to want to be a Scorsese picture more than its source material will allow.
There is a particular scene in the film in which Harding is unexpectedly punched in the face by Gillooly. Rather than letting the moment completely play out and reach its dramatic height, there is a freeze frame over which Robbie narrates Harding’s thoughts—a move straight from the Scorsese playbook. But in I, Tonya, it feels out of place.
Compare this moment to a scene earlier in the film, in which Harding argues with her mother and ends up with a knife in her arm. Here, the moment is allowed to play out and the following scenes help explain Harding’s emotions and rationale in the moment—not that an explanation is needed in either case. This choice ends up being effective because there is little manipulation in its presentation and occurs several more times throughout the film, leaving the audience feeling strange. At this point, the audience is debating between what was a creative choice, and what was added to the story to be able to market the film with the Goodfellas quote.
Regardless of these minor tonal imbalances, I, Tonya succeeds not only for the fine performances, sheer watchablity, and interesting take on the true story, but also thanks to some gorgeous cinematography—on and off the rink.