After a practice session on Jan. 6, 1994, someone tried to break U.S. figure skating champion Nancy Kerrigan’s legs. It was one of the biggest scandals in the history of sports, and it happened before the era of the 24-hour news cycle and social media, so the story exploded and drew worldwide attention for weeks.
Bruised but not broken, Kerrigan survived and went on to win the silver medal in the Winter Olympics less than two months later, enjoying a lucrative career as a professional skater
There’s no movie about her, but there is one about the people responsible for the attack, and Kerrigan isn’t much more than a glorified footnote in it. If you’re like me, you remember the incident well, but don’t quite recall who the perpetrator ended up being. If pressed for the information, most would say it was rival skater Tonya Harding, and with good reason: Harding stood to gain the most if Kerrigan went down, and she seemed to fit the profile of someone who’d carry out a cheap hit on the competition.
In “I, Tonya,” Harding (Margot Robbie, “Suicide Squad”) is portrayed as a survivor of years of violence that date back to childhood and follow her all the way through her adult life, mostly at the hands of her mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney, “The West Wing”), and husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”).
Presented in faux documentary style, the characters in “I, Tonya” speak to the camera during the interview segments and sometimes break the fourth wall to address the audience when the “dramatization” takes too much artistic license (in one intense scene, a shotgun-wielding Harding stops to clarify that she “never did” what the film is about to show her doing).
Combining the gritty, cinematic intensity of “Boogie Nights” with the goofy self-awareness of “Best In Show,” “I, Tonya” rises above its glorified Lifetime movie setup by pulling off an ambitious style aided by a top-notch cast. One unforgettable shot begins on a sobbing Gillooly, continues through the house, out the door and down the street in a single take.
Going into a movie like this, one doesn’t expect a masterfully-executed tribute to the iconic Copacabana scene from “Goodfellas,” but it happens. And though each performer can be funny and charming, that switch can be flipped quickly to deliver hard-hitting realism that does away with any chance of “I, Tonya” being confused with satire or camp.
Though we certainly feel sorry for Kerrigan, and no attempt is made to dodge Harding’s complicity in what went down, putting the focus on one over the other allows for an interesting dynamic. Part of Harding’s struggle was that, unlike Kerrigan, she didn’t fit the bill of what a figure skater was supposed to be, and her rock ‘n’ roll image was something that was never going to win favorable opinion in her sport.
In that regard, the glamorous Robbie has more in common with Kerrigan, and more to prove in her role (Robbie followed her eye candy-ish part in “Wolf of Wall Street” with a breakout performance as the twisted comic book villain Harley Quinn three years later), building a character that’s as intriguing as the scandal itself.
In terms of winners and losers, Kerrigan still came out on top, but Harding’s raw talent and drive deserved to be recognized in a great film since they’re not likely to in any other way.