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Five Cent Cine At Home: I, Tonya

Class and Culture

The portrayal of working-class life in “I, Tonya” approaches “slumming it”— so intense, violent, and emotionally fraught are the trials and tribulations of the subject of this engrossing docu-drama: one-time Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding.

Harding is the skating wonder who was the first American woman to complete a triple axel in competition and whose sturdy athleticism, dress and demeanor defied the then-norms of lithe figure skaters gracefully circling to classical music. Although she clawed her way to the Winter Olympics twice in the early 1990s, Harding is best remembered for her possible involvement in the kneecapping of fellow skater and rival Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 Games.

Harding is best remembered for her possible involvement in the kneecapping of fellow skater and rival Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 Games.

Margot Robbie is compelling as the salty, chippy, driven Harding. She plays the skater both at the time of the Olympics and in a decades-later kitchen interview, scenes creatively shot and crosscut. Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, who may have ordered the kneecapping that ended Harding’s, rather than Kerrigan’s career, comes across as a nice guy, even though, according to Harding’s story, he beat her. She’s implicated in violence too; in one scene, she shoots a gun at Gillooly, this time according to his story.

Allison Janney, in an over-the-top performance filled with humor and menace, plays Harding’s chain-smoking, cursing, abusive single parent. She would be the principal villain of the piece, except that place is reserved for the Olympic judges. Those two — the mother and the judges — represent the lows and highs of social class, each trying to mold a resistant Harding to an image not her own.

The film challenges the notion that truth can be found. A disclaimer fills the screen, asserting that the film is “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” Fact-seekers will rush to their Google searches after the credits, but in vain. It’s just not clear who ordered what to be done to whom, who knew, nor whether Harding should have been banned from skating for life.

If ‘I, Tonya’ reveals no truth, it succeeds in elevating Harding to the status of a victim, and perhaps more.

If “I, Tonya” reveals no truth, it succeeds in elevating Harding to the status of a victim, and perhaps more. Once known primarily as the perpetrator of a heinous assault, here she’s something close to a self-assured heroine, struggling to be heard, recognized, and appreciated by a skating elite that belongs to another world.

Date: 2017

Tonya ★★★1/2 (out of four stars)

Director: Craig Gillespie

Starring: Margot Robbie, Allison Janney, Sebastian Stan, Paul Walter Hauser.

Oscars: Won: Best Supporting Actress (Allison Janney); Nominated: Best Actress (Margot Robbie); Best Achievement in Film Editing (Tatiana S. Riegel).

Runtime: 120 minutes

Review published: February 23, 2018

Available: Streaming, Hulu; rent or purchase, Amazon, Redbox, and elsewhere. See JustWatch here.

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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