‘I Tonya,’ a battle between Harding, Kerrigan

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Tonya Harding was arguably the biggest punchline of the 1994 Winter Olympics. Now, she gets to tell her side of the story. It doesn’t help much. What we learn is whacking competitor Nancy Kerrigan’s knee wasn’t nearly as shocking as it was inevitable. If not this specific incident, Tonya might have been involved in something far worse.

Margot Robbie has evolved from a bimbo on “Wolf of Wall Street” to a super anti-hero in “Suicide Squad” to a fully evolved complex persona in “I, Tonya.” She does as much for this biopic as Gary Oldman did for Winston Churchill, all while dancing backward on ice skates. Without much experience on ice, Robbie performs most of the skating routines herself, other than the famed Harding triple axels, choreographed with CGI effects.

History tells us behind most controversial athletes is an overzealous parent. Here, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) needs serious counseling, just to be “Mommy Dearest.” Janney was the filmmakers’ first choice for the role. She makes us feel a surprising sense of empathy for the rebellious young athlete that is skating on very thin ice indeed.

The chain-smoking LaVona “encourages” Tonya, “Call that a clean skate, for Christ’s sake?” Another mom pleads, “Do not swear in front of the kids,” LaVona responds, “I didn’t swear, you c$%&!” Few can resist watching a train wreck. Not even the Coen Brothers could write this script. Writer Steven Rogers (“Love the Coopers”) includes dubious interviews with each character telling self-serving stories about the same event.

Director Craig Gillespie (“Million Dollar Arm”) often breaks the fourth wall so each character can look at the camera and add his or her own emphasis on what happened. The filmmakers score high marks for degree of difficulty and even more as they stick each landing. We quickly realize we’re watching a very bizarre set of events enacted by a very peculiar group of people. Together, they show us truth is stranger than fiction.

Robbie convincingly portrays Tonya as a gutsy fighter, but that flippant and profane style doesn’t fit a skater’s image. With persistence and athleticism, she rises to the top of the ranks. Her life turns from bad to worse with wife-beating loser Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Inquiring minds want to know, so we learn they did not meet at Christian Mingle.

During filming, Robbie, who is five inches taller than Tonya, wore wigs laced with beer to achieve the “crunchy” perm that became Tonya’s signature “do.” Ironically, Robbie trained extensively with Sarah Kawahara, Nancy Kerrigan’s choreographer. Robbie decided to keep several of the Harding scrunchies as souvenirs.

If things weren’t bad enough, ex-hubby Gillooly and friend Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser) devise grand schemes to improve Tonya’s chances. They plan to “merely” threaten Kerrigan with her life, but Shawn fancies himself as a guy to get the job done right. So, his goons take a crowbar to Kerrigan’s knee. Nobody is the wiser, until Shawn boasts about his deed to just about anyone who will listen.

Tonya generally approved of the movie and liked one profane insult so much she wished she had actually said it. Actual footage of her skating is shown at the beginning of the film. At the end, actual interviews of the real LaVona, Shawn and Tonya are shown.

“I, Tonya” is two hours and rated R for pervasive language, violence, and nudity. It is thoroughly compelling and utterly exhausting. The 1994 Olympics became the battle between Kerrigan and Harding. Kerrigan won the silver and Harding finished eighth. Oh yeah, Oksana Baiul, who won the gold, became a mere footnote in the fiasco.

The movie doesn’t excuse anyone’s actions, but it does explain. Tonya was not exactly America’s sweetheart but persevered through a tragic life and unfair Olympic judging. Interesting that Allison Janney had herself been a trained figure skater until a severe accident “Gillooly’d” her leg. Fortunately, her fallback to acting might earn her an Oscar. Just watch out for the East German judge.

Ron’s Rating: B+
Leigh’s Rating: B

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Ron & Leigh Martel