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The Mother

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The Incident

Margot Robbie nails it as Tonya Harding
Margot Robbie nails it as Tonya Harding

It’s not just the story. It’s how it’s told.

And in the case of Tonya Harding, what a story it is. Going beyond the infamous incident of Jan. 6, 1994, in which her lead skating competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, was whacked in the knee by a baton-wielding jerk, I, Tonya captures the chaos in Tonya’s life, starting as a 4-year-old girl with a passion for ice skating, all the way up to the abusive husband and idiot accomplices who incompetently engineered one of sport’s most notorious scandals.

At times, it plays out like something from the Coen brothers. Surely this is a misplaced chapter from Fargo — either the movie or the TV show. Surely people can’t be that stupid. And — wink, wink — this is “based on a true story.”

But. Yeah. People really can live delusional lives far off the rails. And, ultimately, this is a smart movie about some really stupid people making some really bad choices.

Even so, Tonya Harding rises as a sympathetic character – thanks to Margot Robbie’s astonishing performance. This is an anti-vanity project. Robbie can make a nut job like Harley Quinn sizzle in Suicide Squad and she can carry grace into the jungle as Jane in The Legend of Tarzan. Here, Robbie sheds her gorgeous everything and embodies a troubled, brace-faced soul taunted by a mean-spirited mother. She is constantly, consistently, persistently the recipient of one message above all others: She’s not good enough.

Yep. Tonya was born into a world of redneck trailer park white trash. She’s miles from the wholesome image the U.S. Olympic Committee wants to represent the country. She never finished high school. Aside from skating, she has no skills. And when it all falls apart, Robbie looks into the audience and comments on her life: She was loved for a minute. Then she was hated. Then she became a punchline. And then it was like being abused all over again — this time by the general public, by the audience in front of her. It’s a powerful movie moment.

The “skategate” incident was more than a decade before social media gripped the world and the democratization of anonymous bullying took trolling out of the darkness of online forums and chat groups and put it in the hands of virtually everybody in the mobile world of instant gratification and narcissism.

That’s the story.

Frost Bite

Then there’s how it’s told.

The conceit of the production is it’s based on actual interviews with Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, Captain America: Civil War), LaVona Golden (Allison Janney, The Girl on the Train) and others. It’s a “he said, she said” format that cuts between contemporary interview footage (but presented in an old-school 1.33:1 aspect ratio) and the vivid dramatization of the events (presented in a modern, widescreen aspect ratio). It’s a twist on the standard conventions.

At times, the characters break through the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. They offer counterpoints to others’ comments, or simply inject a quip.

The most biting quips come from LaVona, who in turn has a little bird on her shoulder, nibbling at her oxygen hose. As LaVona, Janney takes her character from TV’s Mom and pumps her full of mean-gene steroids. LaVona sees herself as a hero in the story, a hard-driving mother who sacrifices everything for her daughter’s triumphs — while simultaneously undermining her self-confidence.

Another hard-charging parent is Larry Bloom, captured by Kevin Costner in Molly’s Game. To put it mildly, Larry was a jerk during Molly’s formative years, but he at least had a degree of soul and sought reconciliation at the height of Molly’s tumultuous situation.

LaVona? Piece. Of. Work. There’s been no reconciliation. And the real-life mother gets a brief bit of screen time as the end credits start to roll. How Janney captured the essence of this woman is beyond stunning.

Break the Chain

But there’s even more to this unlikely comic-tragic American horror story, all revolving around what should’ve been such a positive event: Tony Harding’s goal was pretty pure — to become the first U.S. woman to perform a triple axel in the Olympics. She was that good. As long as you could look past her unfashionable application of makeup and homemade skating outfits.

As the notoriety of skategate spread, Harding & Co. ascended in the ranks of news coverage.

There’s Matt Lauer on the Today Show. There’s Ann Curry. How odd those two would be among the high-profile news anchors presented. Given the events of recent months, it’s a knee-jerk reaction to question why Lauer wasn’t quickly and easily cut from the movie. After all, Ridley Scott took the unprecedented move of reshooting entire scenes in All the Money in the World in order to excise Kevin Spacey following the rise of sexual misconduct allegations.

But I, Tonya first screened at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September, long before Lauer became a part of the #MeToo movement. It’s off-topic to question why such a mediocre journalist pulled down a multi-million-dollar annual salary, one that his replacement, Hoda Kotb, surely won’t be seeing any time soon, regardless of her higher Q Score.

And Ann Curry? There was scandal and gossip about Lauer’s role in her departure from NBC.

No. Lauer is every bit a part of the much greater Harding story. The unseemly side of how those unseemly stories get covered — and by whom.

Skategate was, in some respects, the beginning of the end of American media civility. That was January 1994. In June 1994, there was the O.J. incident: two dead people and a bizarre chase on an L.A. freeway with a former football star in a Ford Bronco. I, Tonya captures that crazy moment with a brief clip.

And from there, news media begins its descent to where it is now, with questions of “fake news” in the headlines even as Tonya, through Robbie, comments on how there is no such thing as truth — everyone has their own truth.

As reporter Martin Maddox (Bobby Cannavale, Ant-Man)  points out, Hard Copy was the premier tabloid news show back in the Harding days. The mainstream media would eventually follow suit.

It all swirls together.

I, Tonya is a biting look at Tonya Harding’s life story. It’d qualify as pure satire if it weren’t true. But there’s so much more to it as the movie puts this period — the mid-’90s — in a fresh perspective in terms of pop culture, the media and broader societal behaviors. The ice shavings from the Harding/Kerrigan incident were merely the core of what’s become a huge snowball.