"I, Tonya" made me sympathetic toward Tonya Harding, and I'm as shocked as you are
Going into dark comedy I, Tonya, I had some reservations. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is my Christmas. I was counting down the
months days hours minutes to seeing it. Because — I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again — I’m still completely fascinated by the bizarre Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan scandal. But I was concerned that I, Tonya might not totally hold Harding accountable for her wrongdoings, and that it might instead glorify her in some way.
That’s, in part, because I’d come across a W interview with Margot Robbie, who plays Harding, saying that she’s 100% on the side of the disgraced figure skater. Honestly, that makes sense. We hear actors say time and time again how close they become to real-life figures — good and bad, dead and alive — when they play them, how they feel for them because they’re inside their heads and working through their motivations.
But I really didn’t want that to mean that I, Tonya would be too sympathetic toward Harding. I didn’t want it to turn her into a victim.
Before we continue, let’s get one thing straight: Harding was never charged with planning the attack on Kerrigan, her competitor. Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly and his friend/her bodyguard Shawn Eckardt were the ones behind the attack; hit man Shane Stant carried out the violent act, with Derrick Smith as the getaway driver. But Harding? She pleaded guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution and her skating career, effectively, came to an end.
In the eyes of the law, she did not plan the attack on Kerrigan. In the eyes of the media and the public…well, that’s a different story. Many believed and still believe that she had more to do with the “whack heard ‘round the world” than she admitted. But for our purposes, let’s focus on what she pleaded guilty to, rather than getting into hearsay…
Harding said she learned details of Gillooly’s involvement after the attack, but failed to come forward in a timely manner. You can understand why she might have waited; she’d been working her whole life to place at the Olympics, and the 1994 games in Lillehammer was her last chance. But that doesn’t excuse her actions.
So I *desperately* did not want I, Tonya to treat Harding as some kind of anti-hero.
Harding grew up with poverty, and was abused by her mother, LaVona Golden — and later, by Gillooly. No doubt about it, she did not have an easy life. It was like she had to fight for everything. So again, you can understand why she made some bad decisions in pursuit of Olympic gold. But understanding is one thing, and sympathizing — or even rooting for her despite her guilt in the attack, splitting into #TeamTonya and #TeamNancy — is another.
Here’s the thing, though: I, Tonya strikes the P-E-R-F-E-C-T balance.
The film is as critical as it is sympathetic. It shows Harding as someone who is rough around the edges, and refuses to accept blame for a lot of her actions (she plays the “It wasn’t my fault” card more than a few times). And ultimately, the movie portrays her as someone who made some very bad choices that led to serious consequences. In the film, we see her pleading guilty and being banned from figure skating FOR LIFE.
It also paints her as a victim. Because of the scandal, Harding was at the center of a firestorm. She was condemned by the media and the public. At one point, Harding (Robbie) likens the harassment she experienced — the media stakeouts to get any bit of information or a photo of her, and the way she was villainized in the press as a couple examples — to the abuse she experienced from her mother and ex-husband. And in some ways, she’s right. She was found guilty in the eyes of many, before even going to court.
What I, Tonya gets so right is that it doesn’t paint Harding as one-half of a dramatic catfight between two ice princesses.
It paints her as talented, complicated, tough, emotional, desperate, and insecure. And Robbie plays all of that — and more — beautifully. She STICKS 👏 THAT 👏 LANDING 👏. She totally transforms. Margot Robbie is Tonya Harding, but she also brings a freshness to the character and to a story that — in the wrong hands — could feel tired.
Because of all this, when Harding compares her condemnation to the suffering she experienced at the hands of her mother and ex-husband, I not only saw it that way, too — I felt terribly for her. In that specific moment, I felt that, in some ways, she is a victim. This isn’t to undermine what happened to Kerrigan or to excuse Harding’s wrongdoings BY ANY MEANS, but I, Tonya shows Harding as a fully dimensional person — not a tabloid villain, not a headline.
And so, here I am, (somewhat) sympathetic to Tonya Harding — or, Robbie’s version of her anyway. Never thought I’d see the day.