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'I, Tonya' Offers A Sympathetic Second Act To A Disgraced Figure Skater


This is FRESH AIR. In January 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was struck on the leg with a police-style baton by a man linked to Kerrigan's skating rival, Tonya Harding. The incident and its aftermath turned that year's Winter Olympics into a media circus and made Harding infamous. She's now the subject of a movie biography. It's called "I, Tonya," and it's a dark comedy starring Margot Robbie as Harding and Allison Janney as her mother. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: I assumed from its title that "I, Tonya" would be an American working-class twist on the Roman saga "I, Claudius," here about greedy people scheming to maim one another. And it is that a bit, but it also, to my shock, had me wiping away tears, wishing Tonya Harding was there in the theater to get a standing ovation. It's not that she emerges blameless for the events leading up to the bashing of her skating rival Nancy Kerrigan's leg, it's that as portrayed by Margot Robbie, she has so much more heart than anyone else on screen and so much more to overcome.

The movie is framed as a documentary, the actors playing their characters 25 years after the infamous Kerrigan incident, each spinning bitterly his or her own version of events. Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers take is that everyone's account is suspect. In some scenes, characters even turn to the camera and say, this is not what happened. What they know for sure is that they have the mother of all bad mother stories. Her name is LaVona Golden, and she's played to howling effect by Allison Janney, who looks and sounds like the husk of a cicada you find sometimes in summer.

Her very soul seems desiccated. She shoves the teenaged Tonya onto the ice, angry over her losses and jealous over her wins. She hits, too. She's violent enough to drive Tonya into the arms of the first man to want her, Jeff Gillooly, played by Sebastian Stan. Gillooly, alas, hits more often and harder. No wonder Tonya skates without smiling. But skate she does, in defiance of judges who tell her she's a bad fit for the sport.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) 4.8.

MARGOT ROBBIE: (As Tonya Harding) How do I get a fair shot here? 'Cause I'm up at 5 every morning working my ass off. Did someone want to just tell me to my face you're never going to give me the scores I deserve?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) This is how it's done. Some of these girls have paid their dues.

ROBBIE: (As Tonya Harding) I don't give a [expletive]. I out-skated them today.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) We also judge on presentation.

ROBBIE: (As Tonya Harding) Well, you know what? If you can come up with $5,000 for a costume for me then I won't have to make one. Until then, just stay out of my face.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Maybe you're just not as good as you think. Maybe you should pick another sport.

EDELSTEIN: The real Tonya had so many challenges. She didn't have the willowy, long-limbed frame of Kerrigan or more classically proportioned skaters. She got by on grit. Margot Robbie has a slimmer frame. But makeup and posture compensate for much. And Robbie captures every bit of Harding's driving athleticism, the upshot of which was the first triple axel in Olympics competition history.

Robbie evokes superbly how trapped Tonya feels when late in the film, you watch her stare grimly into the mirror and smear rouge on her cheeks. You see a woman longing to be storybook pretty enough to transcend the ugliness around her. There is a lot of ugliness. Sebastian Stan's Gillooly is the most insidious of abusers, looking reasonable up to the instant he swings his fist. The mix of cartoonish idiocy and realistic domestic abuse doesn't entirely work.

Seeing Harding with a black eye and bruised cheeks for the third time makes it hard to giggle in the next scene at the antics of morons. "I, Tonya" takes a particularly disjunctive turn when the time comes to dramatize what everyone calls the incident. It's like a second-rate Coen brothers movie, although Paul Walter Hauser is a riot as Shawn Eckhardt, the pal of Gillooly's, who boasted of being a world-renowned surveillance expert but lived in his parents' basement.

The film makes it difficult to believe that Harding knew all the sordid details of what seems like Eckhardt's and no one else's scheme. She just doesn't come across as that venal or that stupid. In any case, the Lillehammer Olympics climax is heartbreaking. Those of us who watched it live on TV remember the sadistic pleasure of seeing Harding fall apart on the ice, the poetic revenge of a wayward shoelace.

Now experiencing that event from Harding's vantage, I felt ashamed at being part of a vast, jeering audience. I think other people will feel that way too. F. Scott Fitzgerald said, there are no second acts in American lives. But he didn't account for the sympathetic biopic.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show, we talk about "Godless," the new Netflix western series built on classic westerns but with a twist. It's set in a town run by women because the men died in a mining disaster. It also features a one-armed villain played by Jeff Daniels and lots of horses, too. We talk with writer and director Frank Scott (ph). Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story incorrectly states that Tonya Harding landed the first triple axel in Olympics competition history. In fact, Canada’s Brian Orser was the first person to land the triple axel at the Olympics.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: January 8, 2018 at 9:00 PM PST
The audio of this story incorrectly states that Tonya Harding landed the first triple axel in Olympics competition history. In fact, Canada's Brian Orser was the first person to land the triple axel at the Olympics.
David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.