In January of 1994, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan was infamously attacked and injured following a practice session at the U.S. Figure Skating Championship. It was later revealed that the attacker, a man named Shane Stant, was hired by co-conspirators of Kerrigan’s main team competitor, Tonya Harding, with the intent to break Kerrigan’s leg so that she would not be able to compete at that year’s Winter Olympics.
I was three years old in 1994. Growing up, I only knew about the incident in the vaguest of terms, my understanding being that at some point in the early 1990s, one female figure skater attacked another in an attempt to ruin her career. I didn’t know anything about these women, only that one of them was good, and one of them was bad. This is the version of Tonya Harding that history paints: she was a crude, aggressive, and ultimately vindictive woman who did unspeakable things to get ahead. She was the closest thing competitive figure skating had to a villain.
When I was home for the holidays last month, my mom and I saw a trailer for I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie’s biopic chronicling Tonya Harding’s life. “I don’t know why anyone would want to watch a movie about that,” my mom said. “I was watching when that happened. The sound of Nancy Kerrigan crying — it was so horrible. I can still hear it.”
Here’s the thing: I, Tonya isn’t about “that.” It’s not about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, an event which solidified Harding’s reputation as the bad girl of figure skating and ultimately ended her career. No — this film is a biopic in the most traditional sense, no matter how untraditional its methods may be. This is a film about Tonya Harding.
There are many merits to I, Tonya, from Gillespie’s smart and efficient direction to the dark, strange humor with which Steven Rogers’ script is imbued; from the fabulously dated costume design to the all-around stellar performances (if Margot Robbie doesn’t get that Oscar nomination, I will be PISSED). But my favorite thing about this film is the fact that it exists at all, because telling the story of Tonya Harding in biopic format is a very bold thing to do.
We are used to biopics being made about people who are revered. Martin Luther King Junior, Abraham Lincoln, Frida Kahlo: these are people with lives worth reflecting on and celebrating. Tonya Harding is not a revered figure. In fact, she is reviled — and even before the attack on Kerrigan, she was never a fan favorite. She didn’t fit the idea of what a figure skating hero should be. She was poor, crass, often referred to as “white trash”; she and her mother sewed skating costumes by hand for competitions because they couldn’t afford to buy them, a fact which likely cost her higher scores from judges who valued presentation. The American public wanted someone clean, traditionally feminine, easy to root for. Harding was not that — but she was an undeniably talented athlete, accomplishing multiple firsts for women in skating. Her critics hated that. They wanted her to fail.
When 1994 rolled around and Kerrigan was attacked, viewers all over the country had the chance to say, “See? Told you so.”
All of this makes Tonya Harding a difficult subject for a biopic, but this film pulls it off. What makes I, Tonya so successful is that instead of glossing over criticisms of Harding in order to lessen the impact of what she may or may not have done, the film dives deep into the complexity of Harding as a person. The framing story, which is essentially a collection of reenactments of real interviews filmed documentary-style, serves to propel the film in the direction we all expect it to go: towards the aforementioned attack. But by the time we reach the event, we realize that the film isn’t actually concerned with whether or not Harding played a role in Kerrigan’s takedown. It doesn’t want to convince us that she did or didn’t do it — it wants us to understand what she was up against.
As I said before, I knew very little about Harding’s life before I saw this film. In watching it, I learned that she was not only from a low-income household, but that she was a victim of physical and emotional abuse for most of her young life — first from her mother, and then from her husband, who she married at 19. Gillespie and Rogers handle the scenes of abuse deftly, well enough that at many points the film is painful to watch. Despite its many funny moments, I, Tonya never shies away from showing the vicious reality of Harding’s situation.
It seems that the general public was unaware of the abuse Harding was enduring, and I sincerely hope that's the case; perhaps if people had known what she was going through, they wouldn't have been so cruel. We see plenty of this cruelty play out in the film as well, along with the pure injustice of the treatment Harding was subject to because of her background, her broken home. When she asks a judge why she didn't get higher scores, he replies, "We need to see a wholesome American family." In real life, according to Harding, a representative from the United States Figure Skating Association encouraged her to get back together with her abusive ex-husband because people wanted to see an Olympian with a "stable home life." The saddest part is: she did.
Though it’s message about the cycle of abuse is clear, the film does not go so far as to make Harding into a hero. We see her at her best, but we also see her at her worst; she has a wild temper, a manipulative streak, and at times, she can be downright cruel. Because of the framing device, the audience is never allowed to completely forget what happened with Kerrigan, and that’s important: this film will not let you off the hook. That’s what makes it such a refreshing experience, especially for something that is technically a biopic. Leaving this movie, I struggled with what to make of Harding, and as I write this I’m still struggling. To me, that’s a sign of success on the film’s part — and especially on Margot Robbie’s, who carries this thing from start to finish with a dynamic, nervy performance that will make you laugh while it breaks your heart.
More than twenty years after the dissolution of her skating career, Tonya Harding is still a household name — a name linked inextricably to one singular event. Her alleged involvement in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan inspired countless parodies and several documentaries, and is still referenced regularly across the pop culture zeitgeist to this day. But Tonya Harding is more than the first thing we think of when we hear her name. She is a silver medal winner, a two-time Olympian, and a survivor of abuse. Her legacy deserves to be broadened, and I, Tonya is here to do just that.
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