Sunday, September 26, 2021

I, Tonya

DirecTV decided to give me three free months of the Showtime package, so I've got about 10 extra movie channels mostly showing somewhat more recent movies. I've already recorded about as much as I've got space to on my DVR, and will slowly be getting around to watch the movies. First up is I, Tonya, which will be on TCM Xtra tomorrow (Sept. 27) at 2:00 PM, and again a couple more times this week.

I assume American readers already know the basic story, but I don't know quite how well known it is in other English-speaking countries. Tonya Harding (played by Margot Robbie) was an American figure skater who was born into a decidedly modest working-class background, raised by mother LaVona (Allison Janney). Figure skating is one of those insular worlds that apparently expects its female competitors to skate and act a certain way, like little princesses more or less. Tonya was certainly not that way by upbringing, and her skating was as much physical as graceful, as seen by her being one of the few female skaters ever able to perform a difficult jump known as the triple axel. (As I understand it, the way you take off and land effectively requires you to perform an extra half rotation, which is what makes it more difficult than the other jumps.)

Tonya's athleticism over artistry, combined with a working-class presentation -- LaVona is portrayed as a very working class woman and extremely pushy stage mother -- made Harding less than a darling among the hidebound judges, compared to skaters like 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi and Harding's domestic rival for a place on the 1994 Olympic squad, Nancy Kerrigan. This rankled Tonya, who by this time had gotten married to the equally blue-coller Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

What happened next is a bit unclear, mostly because everybody involved has obviously had reason to present their side of the story in a way that puts them in the best light. Gillooly had hired his friend Shawn Eckart (Paul Walter Hauser) to be Tonya's "bodyguard", and one of the three got the idea of trying to intimidate Nancy in the run up to the 1994 US Championships which were also the Olympic qualifying tournament. This was ultimately handled by Shawn hiring Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) to kneecap Kerrigan, who famously cries "Why?" after being hit.

Unsurprisingly, the Harding team being the gang that couldn't shoot straight, all of this was quickly figured out by the authorities, and the whole situation became an extreme media circus. Since all of the legal issues hadn't been sorted out, Harding was allowed to compete in the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Unfortunately, she had a technical issue with her skates that only showed up at the beginning of her long program, forcing her to beg the judges for forbearance and allow her to start her program over again. Harding finished eighth, while Kerrigan, who had recovered, finished second, although at the time there was a fair amount of controversy over whether she had skated better than the ultimate gold medalist, Oksana Baiul.

I, Tonya presents all of this almost as a partial mockumentary, considering the way recreated interviews (that may or may not have happened in real life) are used, including both Hardings, Gillooly, and a tabloid TV reporter. (This isn't Kerrigan's story; the only line she gets is the famous "Why?" line. Also, the fourth wall is consistently broken, and the visual look of the movie comes out more like a music video. In fact, I was going to make a complaint about the movie having intrusive direction, until it hit me that much of the presentation seemed designed to be unrealistic. The whole situation was so absurd that if somebody had written the story as fiction, it probably wouldn't have been believed.

That visual style may bother some people, but it ultimately worked for me, although it did take a while. As for the story itself and how it decides to portray each of the main players, I have to admit again that I don't know what really happened in all of this. I can certainly understand some sympathy for Harding, as judging in those days certainly turned out to be old-fashioned and less than fully honest. The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics brought that to the fore when there was a huge controversy in the pairs' figure skating judging. But at the same time, it's tough for me to believe that Tonya had no clue that physical violence against Nancy Kerrigan was planned.

Overall, I, Tonya is an interesting look at a thoroughly bizarre event that really did happen, although a look that's not without its flaws.

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