Saturday, January 13, 2018

I, Tonya: Skate Your Heart Out

The Winter Olympics should pay the producers of I, Tonya a hefty sum for advance publicity. Because after watching this glorious movie, I cannot wait to watch the Figure Skating competition in February. I went to see this movie with my colleagues, Bhavini and Diana, and when we left the theater, onlookers in Times Square may have been amused to note Diana, a figure skater, twirling in the lobby as she attempted to demonstrate the intricacies of a triple axel to us. And that, in a nutshell, is the power of this film. It will make you want to rush home, watch figure skating videos, and then head to a rink with your skates.

Written by Steven Rogers and directed by Craig Gillespie, I, Tonya is a look at the life of American figure skater, Tonya Harding, and the events that led to the infamous "incident," where her Olympic competitor, Nancy Kerrigan, was attacked by an extremely incompetent hitman. Everyone who hears the name Tonya Harding immediately thinks of the attack, some even going so far as to mis-remember it as Harding directly attacking Kerrigan. But this movie is an attempt to humanize Harding, warts and all, and help us understand the life she led, and the struggles and mistakes along the way that led to the derailment of her dreams.

The movie is such an entertaining ride that I am loath to give away any plot. However, let's discuss the elements that make this such a superior film. First, the focus on socioeconomic status in skating is rather remarkable. Harding was always denigrated as "white trash," and it is heartbreaking to witness how her working class and abusive background posed such a profound barrier to her ability to successfully compete in the sport she loved. Judges refused to give her high scores in spite of her incredible athletic ability - she was the first American woman to land a triple axel in competition (only eight other female figure skaters in the world have accomplished this as of 2018) but she was too muscled, her costumes were too inelegant, and her music selection wasn't refined enough to allow her to get top marks. One of the more devastating moments in the film is when she is arguing with a judge about why so much emphasis is placed on her background and presentation and she chokingly says, "I don't have a wholesome family. Why can't it just be about the skating?!"

Second, the movie has a fascinating tone. Billed as a dark comedy, it is wickedly funny with a bizarre and excellent soundtrack. There are plenty of moments when characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience as the absurdity mounts in particularly tense situations. The movie is also filmed partially as a mockumentary, with the various members of the story being interviewed in the present to tell their version of the events of the past. Each person's representation of the facts is skewed to suit their own ends, glossing over abuse and trauma as required. Cobbling together the "true" story proves to be an exercise in futility. But the end credits do feature some videos with the actual people, and it's wonderful to see what a brilliant job the actors did to bring these characters to the big screen. Which brings me to the third point, the acting.

Every actor in this film is superb, but none more so than Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding. Her face is the most wondrous aspect of the entire movie. Sure it's engaging to watch her battle with her mother and husband, and everyone else who treats her like crap, but the best moments of this movie are when she is alone, with the camera focused on her face, and the true Tonya comes bursting forth. The moment when she lands that triple axel and breaks out into an enormous smile is riveting. But the most arresting scene is when she is putting on her makeup before the 1994 Olympics. Stressed beyond belief, fighting tears, and smearing on rouge, that one scene is all you need to declare that the woman deserves an Oscar nomination.

Finally, as I mentioned at the very beginning, this is a movie about a woman who loved to skate. And every scene on the ice is a miraculously edited, tour-de-force performance. Yes, there are moments when you can tell there are manipulations at work to get Robbie's face on a professional skater's body. But it doesn't matter, because each skate feels like an exhilarating thrill ride; you feel like those blades are on your feet, and as the camera spins around, it takes you with it. If there were Oscars for choreography, Sarah Kawahara would win them all, while Heidi Munger and Anna Malkova should get special awards for serving as Robbie's magnificent skating doubles and pulling off a bazillion double axels just so they could be edited into one triple axel (all these years later, it's still impossible to find a skating double who can pull off a triple axel).

I, Tonya is a rousing movie about a woman who faced insurmountable odds and still managed to make her mark. Her circumstances meant she was never going to realize her dreams, but this movie gives her some redemption. It serves as a reminder that ambition will only get you so far, but society has a long way to go if we want every person who deserves the gold to actually win it. 

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