No, I Didn’t Kneecap Nancy
“I Tonya” is a gripping, blackly comic bio of infamous ice skater Tonya Harding.
It’s a sports movie of a most novel kind. Documentary-like editing (built out of quickly abandoned real-life interviews) occasionally breaks the fourth wall (actors speaking directly to the audience particularly when blows are struck in domestic abuse or ecstasy dominates triumph in competition).
It recounts and demonstrates contradictory accounts and biographical incidents from different viewpoints amid absurdist and pathetic justifications for one of the most bungled capers in tabloid history.
It was a truly infamous moment in sports history when Nancy Kerrigan, the judges’ model of American grace, was kneecapped on her way to the Olympics. It was an assault orchestrated by Tonya Harding’s estranged husband and her bodyguard — while many in the public assumed at the time and even now that “I, Tonya” was involved.
This black comedy with startling emotional power also has the timely thrill (a month before the winter Olympics) of ice skate competition, realistically imitating (via special effects, doubles and consumer graphics) those triple axels and physical spins that made Tonya stand alone on the ice even as her home-made costumes and defiant attitudes brought her points down with the judges.
The film makes Margot Robbie as Tonya seem to sparkle on the ice but she actually produces one of the top performances of the year in how she handles rage and self justification, establishing a middle ground where Tonya is her own victim and society’s victim in the crazy extremes of her choices and behavior. I’m not sure what was the actress choice or the director’s, but there are haunting acting moments when Robbie uses makeup to turn her face into a grinning Japanese death mask.
As her brutal and devoted husband, who has an answer for every failing, Sebastian Stan is sturdily hateful with a little man lost appeal, while Paul Walter Hauser as the beefy bodyguard who conceives himself as some sort of giant brain superspy is painfully laughable.
One of my problems January 7 watching the Golden Globes on NBC – which only sometimes caught the proper balance between Hollywood glitter jokes and the Me-too movement — is that neither I nor many in the audience had time or occasion to see all the nominations, especially since some were in limited release nationally (only New York City or Los Angeles showings before the end of the year qualify a film for the award season). So, without seeing “Lady Bird” and some other winners and losers, I can’t comment on the worth of the decisions.
But for my money, Robbie’s blunt, defiant performance, skirting the edge of painting Harding as heroic while rousing sympathy and laughter, deserved to be in the running.
And I applaud the win for Allison Janney as her mother from hell, pecking away at her daughter even as the bird on her shoulder pecks at her. It is horrifyingly brutal yet audience pleasing tour de nastiness but it also strikes the heart of one of the movie’s main themes – setting aside how the working class often looks like the three stooges when confronting the upper class, there is a genuine class warfare in our society that explains a lot of how our attitudes and character judgments are formed.
In this regard and its fresh and flashy manner of storytelling, screenwriter Steve Rogers and director Craig Gillespie earn our gratitude. In truth they are so carried away by the showmanship and comic aspects of the events and performance, they should have cut and honed a bit harder. One problem is that the storytelling style and the actors are so revealing in the early going that we don’t need the minutaie that has to establish the machinations of the plot.
But “I, Tonya,” which only hit Milwaukee in January, deserves a winning skate at the box office. I’m not sure it will melt the ice on America’s condemnation of Tonya, but it sure elevates our understanding – and does so with a humor that cuts both ways.