As a teenager, I came across a glowing Sports Illustrated profile of Tonya Harding during the run-up to the 1992 Winter Olympics. Reading the story about this girl who had overcome so much to become the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition, I decided I liked her. She came in fourth at those Games, then there was another Olympics just two years later, and, well, you know what happened with that. Decades later, after seeing the grotesque comic opera version of her life that is I, Tonya, I came away not liking her, exactly, but with a certain respect for her.
Margot Robbie portrays the adult version of “Tawny” Harding, trying to compete against skaters with more money and more ability to fit themselves into the “demure little princess” box that figure skating prefers for its women. As a child, she’s abused constantly by her horrible mother LaVona (Allison Janney), so when she grows up and marries Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), she isn’t fazed when he hits her as well. When a death threat comes in against Tonya before the 1994 Olympic trials, Jeff and his megalomaniacal buddy Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) hatch a plot against fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver), initially to do the same thing to her.
The story, described as being based on “irony-free, wildly contradictory” accounts, is framed by staged interviews with Tonya, Jeff, LaVona, Tonya’s skating teacher Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), and a tabloid reporter (Bobby Cannavale). Director Craig Gillespie (of Lars and the Real Girl) leans into the unreliability of what we’re seeing: When Tonya fires a shotgun at Jeff’s head, she immediately turns to the camera and says, “This is bullshit! I never did this!” There’s undeniably an element of “wow, look at these trashy people” in the presentation, from Shawn describing himself as an “international counterterrorism expert” to Tonya telling skating judges to “suck my dick” to LaVona being admonished for swearing in front of children and responding, “I did not swear, you cunt!” The assault on Kerrigan by a brain-dead Shane Stant (Ricky Russert) is depicted in all its messiness. This may strike you as condescending, and yet a certain amount of this is necessary to convey the voyeuristic ogling at the Harding-Gilloolys that the world delighted in 24 years ago.
Regardless, this is the best figure skating movie ever made (sorry, Blades of Glory), even if it’s more likely to inspire little girls to flip the bird than take to the ice. While the CGI team does much to make Robbie look like she’s really doing all those jumps and spins, Gillespie films the skating sequences using creative angles and movements. As Tonya begins her performance at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championship (where she lands that triple), the camera starts at ice level and then cranes up to the roof to follow her eyeline as she tilts her head up. Steven Rogers’ script even gets wonky about the technical details of skating for those of us who don’t know much about the sport, going into the physics of a triple axel. No film has ever captured the sport’s allure and theatrical glamour like this one.
If Robbie gets an Oscar nomination from this, it will likely be for the huge amounts of physical work that she clearly put in. (For starters, she had to learn ice skating from the ground up, Australia not being a hotbed of figure skating.) Even so, this performance is no mere stunt. She’s at her best in two set pieces. The first one is when she wordlessly reacts to the fact that her mom has thrown a knife at her during an argument and hit her with it. The other is backstage just before her performance at the 1994 Olympics, when she stares into her dressing-room mirror with all her ice makeup and tries to keep herself together when she’s buckling under the weight of the public’s hate.
Maybe the image of Tonya being battered once again, this time in a boxing ring for a crowd cheering on the violence, is an obvious place for I, Tonya to end. Still, it’s there that Tonya delivers the last piece of narration and winks at us before getting up off the canvas to continue the fight. In her competitor’s resolve and refusal to slink away when her sport has been taken from her, we find her soul.
Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and Allison Janney. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Written by Steven Rogers. Rated R.