Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Tonya Harding Rolls with the Punches

I, Tonya, which explores the public perception of this country’s most notorious ice queen, could not be timelier. These days—when image is everything and a future president once bragged that his great popularity would allow him to get away with murder—the story of figure-skater Tonya Harding seems right on the money in terms of the way we Americans look at crime. What happened backstage at a Detroit ice arena two decades ago definitely has legs, and this new film brought it all flashing back to me.

I’m a fan of competitive figure-skating, especially when the Winter Olympics are drawing near. So I absolutely remember the build-up to the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which would determine the American skaters who’d vie for Olympic gold. The ladies’ event pitted Nancy Kerrigan, a slender, fragile-looking young lady from Massachusetts who was known for her grace on the ice against Tonya Harding, a solidly-built wild-child from Portland, Oregon, renowned for her athleticism. (She was the first American female to successfully land a triple-axel in competition.) Unfortunately for Tonya, who came from a working-class background, she never fit neatly into the genteel world of ladies’ figure-skating. In an arena where it helped to seem delicate and demure, she was a powerhouse on the ice. The product of two bad marriages (her mother’s and her own), she projected an image that was tough as nails, and she had the mouth (as well as the swagger) to turn judges against her.

On that infamous evening in Detroit,  Nancy Kerrigan—following a practice session—was felled in an arena hallway by an assailant wielding a metal police baton. The assault badly bruised her leg, but it could have been far worse: her kneecap was the apparent target. The news reports that quickly flashed across the nation featured Kerrigan on the ground, writhing in pain, moaning “Why me?” It didn’t take long to locate the “masterminds” behind the senseless attack: Tonya Harding’s ex-husband and his goofball friend, who was Tonya’s self-anointed body-guard. The question of Harding’s own culpability has never been settled. She has always denied that she knew of the plan, but her innocence is far from certain. In any case, she (so obviously a bad-girl), was quickly declared guilty in the court of public opinion. Today there are those still convinced that SHE was the baton-wielder, striking down her toughest competition for a spot on the Olympic team. The press happily went along with this scenario, which pitted a trailer-trash vixen against a sweet little swan, (Nancy’s big number used music from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.)  

I, Tonya doesn’t exactly set this misperception to rights. Instead, it does something far more interesting, using a documentary format to conduct on-camera interviews with Tonya (Margot Robbie) and the dominant figures in her life, including abusive ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), and her gorgon of a mother, LaVona (the unforgettable Allison Janney). Those interviews give us pieces of the story, but also show us what a rare thing it is to be able to nail down the facts of a notorious public event. Characters contradict one another, and talk back to the camera. At one striking moment Tonya even blames us in the audience for the prurient attention that encourages reporters to run with half-truths. 

The real Tonya Harding was interviewed extensively for this film. In Robbie’s spirited portrayal, she comes across as an often infuriating but ultimately sad figure. Still, she’s a survivor. What did she do after being banned for life from the figure-skating world? In 2003, she debuted as a professional boxer. Ouch!

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