I, Tonya (2017)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on December 2, 2017 @ tonymacklin.net.

I, Tonya is a sucker punch in the gut of the American Dream.

Based on actuality, it's the story of competitive skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), leading up to "the incident" - when her Olympics rival Nancy Kerrigan was kneecapped in Detroit prior to the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer in 1994.

The plot that resulted in Kerrigan's injury careened out of control. Eventually Tonya was issued a life-time ban from participating in U.S. Figure Skating Association events. For her, it was the ultimate anguish.

In the film Tonya says, "I was loved. I was hated. Now I'm just a punch-line." She puts it in the context of her life, "Now I'm abused all over again."

I, Tonya is an odyssey of abuse - absurd, painful, and at times comic. Her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) is a ceaseless abuser, vulgar and cruel. LaVona should marry Pap in Mudbound. They are both monstrous. LaVona strikes Tonya physically and with verbal fury; her mother's selfish psychological abuse is devastating.

Tonya's husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) is a further extension of abuse. He brutalizes her. But she keeps going back to him.

Tonya is culpable and gullible. She dropped out of high school to pursue skating. She is a product of her background. She is working class and generally poor. She plunges headlong into life.

Ironically, the abuse goes beyond the personal. Tonya's lack of social status hurts her with various judges and costs her points in skating competitions. She lacks "presentation," a judge tells her. Ultimately, because of "the incident," she becomes an international figure of scorn.

Margot Robbie renders a sensational performance as Tonya. Tonya is a whirling dervish of ambition and insecurity. Allison Janney vividly captures the inner ugliness of the calculating LaVona, one of the film's major driving forces.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers throws a wide net over the experience. His approach is to have interviews with various characters 20 years later, along with flashbacks. It jerks us into the life of Tonya.

Director Craig Gillespie directs with panache. He strikes a tone that is incisive but leavened with amusement. Margot Robbie did a lot of training for the skating sequences. Obviously she couldn't do Tonya's big jumps or her famous triple axel, so Gillespie used stunt doubles for the leaps and CGI for the triple axel. They are seamless.

I, Tonya is much more than the story of one woman's experience. It has many stinging reverberations. It's unavoidably relevant today.

It presents many of the dilemmas with which we grapple today. I, Tonya is about image and manipulation. Today image and manipulation are everywhere. Principle seems absent. Class conflict is rampant. Hate simmers. Truth is a useless anachronism.

I, Tonya takes us back to a time when television was creating the concept of unrelenting, dehumanizing coverage of people of notoriety. A television producer (Bobby Cannavale) expresses how his program "Hard Copy" is influencing a revolution. His voyeuristic, invasive coverage is becoming every network's approach. Welcome to 2017.

Presentation is everything. Come down an escalator.

I, Tonya creates a world of struggle in which the characters don't prevail. They try to survive with emotional scar tissue. Is that a harbinger?

I, Tonya probably shouldn't work. But despite the mean-spirited underbelly, it is an invigorating experience. It batters us. But it also challenges, and, perhaps, rewards us. Creativity prevails.

Even if it sometimes may be off target - some people probably have different views of Tonya - it never misses the human connection. It's humanity is its grace.

I, Tony was smitten with I, Tonya.

© 2000-2017 Tony Macklin