A new look at an old drama on the ice

AP
"I, Tonya" is the Tonya Harding film you never knew you wanted.
AP

Sebastian Stan starring Jeff Gillooly and Margot Robbie starring Tonya Harding are in a scene from “I, Tonya.” 

“I, Tonya” is the Tonya Harding film you never knew you wanted: An outrageously entertaining reappraisal of the Olympic figure skater who, in 1994, was involved in a scheme to injure her main rival, Nancy Kerrigan.

Resurrecting Harding from the yellowed pages of 90s tabloids may seem about as necessary as a production of “Lorena Bobbitt on Ice.” 

But yesterday’s media spectacle has been very good for today’s movies. It’s no surprise by now that the tabloid caricatures sketched in a sensational news stories don’t always do justice to the truth. The more layered truths behind scandals of the past have made for some great documentaries and a number of recent dramatic highlights.

Craig Gillespie’s movie‚ an “I, Claudius” for less regal times‚ isn’t a sober reassessment of Harding. It’s a winking, rollicking dark comedy both empathetic and pugnacious. It reframes Harding’s story as an American tragicomedy with some of the unapologetic, this-is-the-real-America sneer of “GoodFellas.” “I, Tonya” is a peek behind a media circus that can’t help going along for the ride, too.

“I, Tonya,” written by Steven Rogers, is introduced as: “Based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” It begins in a mock-documentary style with the characters‚ Margot Robbie as Harding, Sebastian Stan as Gillooly‚ giving present-day interviews recalling “the incident.” Their stories sometimes converge, sometimes deviate and the movie‚ in a well-worn gimmick‚ playfully pauses at various points with characters.

The approach sometimes spoils the fun of “I, Tonya” but Tatiana S. Riegel’s editing is kinetic and the performances keep “I, Tonya” hurtling forward. Especially Allison Janney. She plays Harding’s bitter, abusive chain-smoking mother, LaVona, and her performance is a monument of brutal, caustic wit. 

“I, Tonya” has fun with the various versions of the Kerrigan attack. But the main takeaway is a believable one: that Harding, just 23 at the time, deserved better than yet another beat-down meted out by a much-entertained public.

“America,” she says. “They want someone to love, but they want someone to hate.”


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