WASHINGTON — Just months before O.J. Simpson hopped into his white Ford Bronco to ride into the “Trial of the Century,” the world was captivated by another true-crime story from the world of American sports with Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan at the 1994 Winter Olympics.
The infamous scandal now becomes a Hollywood tragicomedy in the irresistible “I, Tonya,” which debuted locally at the Middleburg Film Festival and now hits theaters nationwide.
We watch Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) rise from the trailer parks of Portland through the ranks of American figure skating. Along the way, she’s pressured by her cruel mother LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) and wooed by her abusive boyfriend Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).
It all builds to that fateful day on Jan. 6, 1994, when Kerrigan is clubbed in the leg (“Why? Why?”) after a practice session at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit. The bungled attack is revealed to have been carried out by hitman Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), who was hired by Gillooly and Harding’s bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser).
“I, Tonya” is a seminal moment in Robbie’s career. After bursting on the scene in “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013) and making a cameo in “The Big Short” (2015), she’s been a consistent bright spot in critically panned blockbusters, from Jane in “The Legend of Tarzan” (2016) to Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad” (2016). It’s refreshing to see her earn acclaim for a lead role.
Not only does she physically transform with a trashy mullet and unkempt teeth, she deserves a nomination for turning an infamous pop-culture villain into a sympathetic figure. Robbie paints Harding as a blue-collar underdog in a world of dainty blue bloods, lacking the princess build of a typical figure skater. We come to admire her gritty determination to disprove the doubters and become the first American woman ever to land a triple axel in competition.
As great as Robbie is as Harding, the real show-stealer is Allison Janney as her insufferable stage mom. Even when we think there might be a moment of redemption with mother-daughter healing, a hidden tape recorder in her pocket reveals the ultimate betrayal. After a career that’s spanned “The West Wing” (1999), “Juno” (2007), “The Help” (2011) and “The Way Way Back” (2013), Janney should finally earn a supporting actress Oscar here for “I, Tonya.”
It’s Janney who gets the film’s funniest line (“What the f*** happened to my storyline?”) in a wildly entertaining post-modern presentation. Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and screenwriter Steven Rogers (“Hope Floats”) skate “the cutting edge” of comedy and tragedy, routinely breaking the fourth wall as characters spit zingers directly at the camera.
As for the action scenes, the figure skating is admirably authentic. If you look closely, you might be able to spot the moments where Robbie’s face is digitally placed onto a stunt skater, but the CGI is still pretty seamless. If you thought Emma Stone and Steve Carell’s tennis volleys were convincing in “Battle of the Sexes” (2017), “I, Tonya” skates circles around them.
In addition to the action, there’s also plenty of social commentary, not only between the haves and have-nots of our socioeconomic class divides, but also in the salacious media coverage. There’s a very poignant scene where a “Hard Copy” reporter (Bobby Cannavale) laughs at how many of the major news organizations have become the very tabloids that they used to mock.
In fact, the night before this movie review was published, ABC aired a documentary special interviewing both Robbie and Harding called “Truth and Lies: The Tonya Harding Story,” the trailer of which debuted on “Good Morning America.” Which brings us full circle to the overall context of the film’s release and the potential motives behind its public relations rollout.
USA TODAY columnist Christine Brennan covered the scandal back in 1994 and recently wrote a provocative piece titled “Tonya Harding movie wants your sympathy, but let’s not forget the facts.” In other words: Who exactly are we glorifying here? After all, this was a criminal plot, Kerrigan was the victim of a brutal attack and Oksana Baiul smoked them both for the gold.
Still, regardless of your take on the morality of its conceit, the film is so undeniably compelling and well-crafted that it remains a must-see experience. Not only does it skate into my Top 10 movies of the year, it’s a dark horse that I wouldn’t bet against in the Oscar race. Like Tonya, it’s not a typical Oscar contender; it’s a gritty underdog that might just stick the landing.