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Fictional Reenactment In 'I, Tonya' Has Its Moments

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I, Tonya is basically a rehabilitation project for the disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding. Harding was a tremendously talented athlete, a U.S. Champion who skated in two Olympics, and as the movie repeats too often, was the first woman to do a successful triple axel jump in competition. Her downfall came when her by-then ex-husband orchestrated an attack on Harding’s rival, Nancy Kerrigan – a thug smacked her leg with a pipe. Harding, unjustly, became a joke on the spot, and is still ridiculed in the press and late-night talk shows as a low rent tramp.

The film is something of a comedy, and while it's a fictional reenactment, and not documentary, it’s based on news reports, and interviews with Harding and that ex-husband, Jeff Gilhooly. I, Tonya romps through Harding's life, with quick bits with her profane mother telling off the first coach, Harding’s own load of attitude toward most everyone, and the idiotic yet still pretentious husband and his cronies right out of central casting. These are guys too malicious, too clichéd – and too dumb – even to make it into the craps game in the sewer in Guys and Dolls.

The comedy – it’s really farce – is not how you might expect a film to try to rescue a character like Tonya Harding. The dialogue and editing come hard and fast; characters tell the camera directly that someone else’s version of events didn’t happen. The people who surround Harding really are profoundly inept but malicious clowns who manage to feel thoroughly certain about themselves and justified in what they do.

Harding’s mother LaVona, played by an unrecognizable Allison Janney, gets most of the good lines, and you find yourself laughing your way to hating her for being callous and abusive. She makes the jaw-dropping claim that she transformed her daughter from a nothing into a champion. One of the henchmen clings to his loony insistence that he in fact is a trained expert in anti-terrorism. He is not. And the guy that he hired to do the actual assault, can’t open the exit door afterward, so he head butts the glass.

The great documentarian Errol Morris has said that some of the people he interviewed for The Thin Blue Line were so crazy that he had to cut most of what they said on camera – because the audience would think he had actors make it up.

With that hideous foundation to her life, Harding, acted with raw fury by Margot Robbie, doesn’t stand much of a chance to find herself. She skates with determined anger, when her stunning athletic ability might have become miraculous with some finesse. But as this movie sees it, Tonya Harding is always spitting into the wind.

Figure skating at this level is one snotty world. The young skaters and their parents see only trailer trash when Harding shows up. She doesn’t have the right clothes, the right friends, the right home, the right attitude, the right fur coat -- or the right mother. She is simply not socially acceptable to the figure skating crowd, and even a skating judge – cowering inside his car – tells her that being the right kind of person is part of the score she gets for her performance on the ice. It's the same attitude that has made Harding a culturewide joke ever since. At the time, America rejected Tonya Harding for being low class. And still does.

My worry is that the ridicule the movie dumps on the mother, the then-husband and the dopey henchmen, spreads over Harding also. I Tonya takes her side, but although the film shows the courage it took for Harding to star – even temporarily – in a world that despised her, she's still cursed by the stupidity and absurdity that led to the attack on Kerrigan.

Maybe, as in real life, Tonya Harding can never be rescued from that mother that husband that life and the prejudice.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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