Competitive figure skater and Olympic silver medalist Nancy Kerrigan was a symbol of American class and elegance. She was the daughter of a supportive and wholesome American family. She was poised and graceful, the epitome of femininity and beauty. Tonya Harding was quite the opposite. But despite these differences, both Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding joined the ranks as some of the best, if not the best, female figure skaters in the world.
Known most infamously for becoming embroiled in the assault of competitor Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding was and is much more than the infamous scandal. I, Tonya paints a complex portrait of Tonya, her family, and the fascinating details surrounding "the incident."
Tonya (Margot Robbie) was born and raised in Portland, Oregon and began skating at the age of three. Tonya was, by no means, the expected image of a young figure skater. She enjoyed hunting, mechanics, and drag racing — things she picked up from her father before he left both her and her mother alone in Portland. From then on, LaVona (Allison Janney), her mother, raised Tonya by herself. I, Tonya makes it clear that despite LaVona's dedication to Tonya's figure skating training and career, LaVona both mentally and physically abuses Tonya for much of her life, ultimately driving Tonya into the arms of abusive boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), whom she married when she was just 19 years old.
Despite the abuse, and the need to work several jobs to support her and Jeff, Tonya trained for hours on end to become one of the best figure skaters in the world: she took first place in Skate America and Nations Cup, as well as second in World Championship Skating and the U.S. Olympic Figure Skating Festival. Her top competitor was always Nancy Kerrigan.
Nancy Kerrigan was a crowd favorite. For many Americans, she was their sweetheart. For the judges, she represented everything good in women's figure skating. Though Tonya's athletic ability was unmatched, her presentation — composed largely of inexpensive homemade costumes — would never be as crowd-pleasing as Nancy, who could afford any expense necessary, and Tonya knew that.
Nevertheless, Tonya persisted and became the first American woman (and second woman in the world) to attempt and land the triple axel. Finally, she was getting the recognition and love she had dreamed of and always deserved. I, Tonya shows a hard truth behind the success — it doesn't always translate to happiness. The success drove a wedge between Tonya and Jeff, whose relationship only grew more violent.
The movie uses a pseudo-documentary portrayal of the character's lives, and it proved to be a strong and effective way of letting the audience inside Tonya's struggles. She wanted to leave Jeff and continue on in the pursuit of a life without abuse. But, in her struggle to be seen in the public and by the figure skating association as part of a "wholesome American family," she decides against splitting up their relationship.
Tonya makes the 1992 Winter Olympics team and, despite a series of mishaps with her skates and laces, places fourth overall. She is filled with mixed emotions, and Margot Robbie is excellent in showcasing Tonya's clashing moods. Tonya is still the victim of spousal abuse, and she's losing the love and respect of the figure skating world.
For a few months, figure skating takes a back seat in Tonya's life. But, in 1992, it was decided that the Olympics would be moved to 1994, and Tonya now has a chance at making the team. She is more determined than ever to prove her worth to a world filled with opposition. The cards are stacked against her, but she's driven and takes every chance she can to get better. There's one thing — or person — however, holding her back and she fails to realize it. Jeff Gillooly ultimately leads to the fall of Tonya's career.
Leading up to the Olympics, Tonya began receiving death threats that left her too nervous to take the ice, leaving her with limited practice time. Jeff, along with his up-to-no-good friend Shawn, gets the idea to send Nancy Kerrigan similar letters in the hopes that it will rattle her nerves and level the playing field. Shawn, in a selfish attempt at living out some sort of infamous attack, takes it upon himself to go beyond death threats. He hires two men to attack Nancy Kerrigan. The movie showcases the overwhelming confusion that both Jeff and Tonya experience in response to this. Tonya immediately suspects Jeff's involvement.
Some argue that her hesitation to come forward with suspicion was ultimately her own fault. While this line of thinking isn't completely off the mark, I, Tonya highlights how hard it was for Tonya to ever cross her husband — doing so would inevitably lead to further physical, emotional, and mental abuse at her expense. Though she eventually comes forward, she does so a little too late. To make matters worse, Jeff, overcome with anger at Tonya's decision to finally divorce him, tells the court that Tonya was integral in planning an attack on Nancy Kerrigan. However, it seems fairly clear that Tonya's involvement starts and ends with the decision to send death threats to Nancy's practice arena. After all, Tonya wanted to prove she was the best, and she wanted to prove that she was a superior skater to Nancy. I, Tonya makes sure the audience fully realizes how important it was for Tonya to get the opportunity to not just compete in the Olympics, but to compete against Nancy Kerrigan. It wasn't in Tonya's interest to jeopardize Nancy's chances at getting to compete.
Though the media and public opinion jumped immediately to the conclusion that Tonya was a vicious competitor who wanted nothing more than to win that gold Olympic medal, I, Tonya does a fantastic job of presenting the details of the incident with all of the grey areas and blurred lines that something so complex deserves. In the movie, Tonya describes the media's coverage as abusive. "You're all my abusers, too," remarks Tonya. The movie doesn't erase Tonya's involvement in lying to save her husband. But it allows the audience to sympathize with a woman who faced nothing but hatred and abuse, a woman who wanted nothing more than a fair shot at life. Tonya had been taken advantage of and manipulated, and she made irrevocable mistakes that will forever haunt her.
One of the most heart-wrenching scenes in I, Tonya comes toward the end of the movie where, following her 8th place finish in the Olympics (with Nancy Kerrigan taking second), a trial for the assault resulted in Tonya's lifelong ban from any figure skating association. Margot Robbie's emotional expression is phenomenal, and the audience's heart breaks along with Tonya's as you realize that she had lost everything she had ever known.
I, Tonya sheds new light on an infamously dark spot of American figure skating. The movie forces the audience to leave preconceived notions of Tonya Harding behind and be open to the idea that not everything is as it seems. It allows you to question the "facts" you've previously been told and gives a new voice to someone whose heartbreaking story of abuse and perseverance had been tossed aside and replaced with a media-built portrayal of a fame-hungry villain.