Way back in the early 90’s I was bouncing back and forth between home and college, and I remember the famous incident where Nancy Kerrigan was attacked. In fact, I probably watched some of the Olympics that year because of it. Sadly, my memory seems to recall the whole thing occurred at the Olympics and that the attack was committed by Tonya Harding’s bodyguard with a crowbar. So that goes to show how good a memory is over the long term. Turns out, it was her ex-husband’s idiot buddy with a police baton. This was not quite as big as Ronald Reagan getting shot or the Challenger exploding, but it was definitely a big enough item that it has stuck with me over the years.
So would a film about an incident over twenty years ago manage to be relevant today, and would a modern audience actually like something like this? Looking at the budget of $11 million and the box office take of $46.1 million, according to Wikipedia, there was definitely an audience for this film. As to relevance, I believe the story was well-told and, quite frankly, brutally told in a lot of ways so it manages to grab your attention and present the story really well. This film clocks in right at two hours, but somehow doesn’t really feel it. The pacing is perfect.
The film starts with a young Tonya getting pressured by her overbearing mother, played by Allison Janney, into skating. The mother abusively coaxes a local coach into taking her daughter on for training, which sets the stage for how everything is about to unfold.
If the TV show Roseanne was ever brought to cable, it would look something like I, Tonya. The mother is an abusive and abrasive person where the father bears the brunt of the abuse until he simply can’t take it anymore and leaves. Once he’s gone, Tonya is left to suffer under her absolutely unforgiving mother. The abuse really reaches insane levels, but somehow Tonya sticks through it all most likely using her skating as a relief valve.
Eventually, older Tonya, played by Margot Robbie, meets Jeff Gillooly, who later becomes her husband. Everything starts off well enough here, but unfortunately, abuse begets abuse and she ends up finding someone else to use her as a punching bag. It’s here that the story really gets dark, as if it wasn’t already. What helps is the comedy though. Which may sound horrible, but the way this film was presented it shows these absolutely horrendous, abusive situations and then lightens the mood. I think those bits of humor are really there so you, the viewer, can digest just what you’re seeing over the whole of the film. If this didn’t have the humor, I don’t think it would have worked as well as it did. The abuse scenes are plentiful and without any kind of relief, I think this could have been a shorter film that actually felt longer.
What follows is a really honest and deep look at how Tonya went from a small child, to a teenager, to a high school dropout, to married all the while pursuing her skating career. Unfortunately, she was regarded as a bit of white trash and not really allowed to win due to her background. It was more than implied that the various judges she faced scored her lower than the other girls because of her image. So not only was she tormented at home, she was denied the glory she worked so hard to achieve.
Eventually, we make our way over to the incident with Kerrigan, which was carried out by her now ex-husband Gillooly, who prodded a buddy of his into calling in a death threat on Kerrigan. Turns out, the idiot buddy really contracted a couple friends of his to actually go do physical harm to Kerrigan. So the pair travel over to where Kerrigan was training, one walks right in the front door, and struck her on the leg with a police baton. Then when he’s running away, he headbutts a window to get out. Needless to say, this whole crew was a bunch of imbeciles. It’s not quite clear whether Tonya actually did know about the assault. I believe the film treats it like she knew about the death threat plan, but not the actual assault.
Unfortunately for Tonya, even associating with the idiots did cost her dearly. In the subsequent trial, she was handed a serious sentence with community service, a hefty fine, and a permanent ban from skating competition. She was able to compete in the Olympics before the trial, but she didn’t stand a chance with all the press coverage and pressure from the notoriety. The film continues on a bit with life after the trial and shows her go into boxing and really just try to pick up the pieces.
So overall, I believe this film really delivered a quality take on her life. A lot of it is very subjective and I’m guessing both her ex-husband and mother deny the abuse claims made in this. I can’t help but wonder if either has watched the film and if either are remotely remorseful. Especially now that the film seems popular enough to dig up old skeletons about them. Regardless of exactly how the Kerrigan incident went down, Tonya Harding had a hard life brought on by those close to her, which reflected on how everything went for her, but this film does a good job of establishing the basis for Harding’s behavior. If nothing else, she was the subject of a very good quality film. I give this one 3.5 out of 5 stars. My biggest complaints have to do with just how white trash this film was, but I also think that is exactly its biggest strength.