‘I, Tonya’ (2017) Review

I, Tonya (2017) stars Margot Robbie as former Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding. The movie follows the life and career of Tonya Harding and her connection to the 1994 assault on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. The film grossed $53.9 Million on a budget of $11 Million.


I, Tonya (2017) is a biographical sports mockumentary black comedy film that uses an unreliable narrative (three in this case) in order to tell its story. It follows the life and career of American figure skater Tonya Harding and her connection to the 1994 assault on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. The real life Tonya Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly were both interviewed prior and the script is based off of their recounting of those events.

Much like her extremely short career as a figure skater, the life and times of Tonya Harding is one for the record books. For anybody who is old enough to remember the 1994 assault on Nancy Kerrigan, they’ll tell you just how much this scandal rocked the nation. Even though figure skating is an Olympic sport, it wasn’t one that was popular nor garnered too much interest from the general public. Sonja Henie was responsible for putting figure skating on the map, but what happened between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in 1994 changed the game completely when it came to how people chose to perceive it … and figure skating would never be the same.

The movie is told from three different perspectives: Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie); Tonya’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan); and her abusive mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney). The screenwriter (Steven Rogers) said he was inspired to write the script in the way that he did because he was fascinated by the wildly conflicting stories he was told. All three sides of the story are included in the movie, and they are presented in a way that allows the audience to decide for themselves what exactly they want to believe.

Plot Summary

The movie starts out by introducing present day Tonya Harding, Jeff Gillooly, and LaVona Golden—all played by their respective actors. They’re all giving separate interviews to the camera, recalling the events in their lives that led up to the assault on Nancy Kerrigan in 1994. This will be a recurring element throughout the rest of the movie, going back and forth from what’s happening in the story to them giving their thoughts on said events.

LaVona begins by telling us about Tonya’s childhood, detailing how she basically grew up as “trailer trash” and when she took Tonya to her first skating lesson when she was just four years old. There they meet Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), who would become Tonya’s skating coach. Reluctant at first because of her age, Diane refuses to take on Tonya as a student. That is, until she sees Tonya skate. She wins her first competition at this age.

A few years later, Tonya (now being played by the adorable Mckenna Grace), is practicing skating at the same ice rink. Her mother is watching from the sidelines, whilst heckling her about how poorly she’s doing. This is LaVona’s extremely backhanded way of trying to inspire Tonya to do her best. The abuse that Tonya suffers from LaVona as a child will be the main focus point that the two of them have in their mother/daughter relationship.

Skip twenty years later and Tonya (Margot Robbie) is competing in a competition that she ultimately ends up losing. While practicing at the skating rink one day, she meets Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and his friend Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser). They hang out a few times and, after going on a date, become a couple.

Tonya continues to fail to impress the judges at competitions, something that her mother is none too pleased about considering that all the money she makes working as a waitress is going into Tonya’s skating. Tonya can no longer take the abuse from her mother, and she and Jeff get their own place together. However, there is a lot of abuse that happens with him as well, something that Tonya doesn’t like but puts up with mostly because this is when she is able to land the triple axel and is now finally winning skating competitions.

Anyway, there’s a whole lot of character development that happens thereafter. The main turning point in the film comes when Tonya, Jeff, and Diane are approached by a local Sheriff (or Deputy) just before Tonya will be competing. He tells them that he received a death threat regarding Tonya, saying that if she skates, she will get “a bullet in the back”. This scares Tonya, and she stops skating for a little while. And this is what prompts Jeff to get the bright idea to do something similar to Nancy Kerrigan. He and Shawn talk about hiring somebody out of state to send death threats to Nancy…and apparently, this is all it was supposed to be.

This is where the details of the story get a little fuzzy and conflicting reports from all parties begin. Tonya has denied that she was ever part of it, and Jeff states that there was never supposed to be a physical assault on Nancy, simply letters getting sent in the mail. However, because Shawn has already put things into motion, it seems like only through an extreme lack of communication do “Shawn’s Guys”, Derrick Smith (Anthony Reynolds) and Shane Stant (Ricky Russert), end up tracking Nancy down during a practice session.

-Nancy Kerrigan

Well, that’s the thing. We don’t know why. But the film does go on to explain the fallout in the best way that it can. It takes both Tonya’s and Jeff’s sides of the story, mixes them in a pot and sprinkles the official report on top, and this is how we end up getting our third act. The FBI track down Shawn, (who cannot keep his mouth shut about being the one who set the whole thing up), leading to his arrest as well as Jeff’s, Shane’s, and Derrick’s.

Tonya is completely overwhelmed by the constant press coverage, and this is when she starts to fail at standing on the podium in competitions. Despite the scandal going on, she is still allowed to compete in that year’s Olympics in Lillehammer. Although she tries her best, Tonya ultimately fails to land the triple axel, placing eighth. Nancy places second, winning the Olympic silver medal. Tonya never had a chance.

After the Olympics, Tonya is banned for life from ever competing in figure skating competitions. She pleads that she would be willing do the eighteen month jail time like the others, but the judge refuses, and Tonya has live her life without being able to do the one thing she is best at. She has never been able to fully move on, but she has been able to persevere as all warriors do.

Tonya Harding

In order to understand why Tonya Harding is such a big deal, you have to understand what she was able to accomplish. She wasn’t exactly a figure skating protégé per se, but that’s how extraordinary she was when she was on the ice. At one point in the movie, she is referred to as the Charles Barkley of figure skating. It’s a bit of an extreme comparison, but the point is Tonya was a child who came from nothing, who had an innate gift that made her capable of being able to accomplish various feats that nobody else was able to do.

This innate gift is what led Tonya to become the first American woman who was able to land the triple axel while in competition (as seen in the incredibly grainy gif below).

Tonya Harding landing the triple axel at Nationals in 1991.

The triple axel is kind of what it sounds like: you have to skate backwards and hurl yourself in the air, spin around three times, and land on the outside of the skate blade. If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. If you don’t know anything about figure skating, just know the triple axel is a big deal solely because it’s one of the most difficult moves to pull off.

Nobody was attempting to land the triple axel at the time, but Tonya was determined that she was going to be able to do it. Of course, the reason why Tonya was so determined to do the triple axel was because she felt that she was being treated unfairly by the judges. She didn’t feel as if she was being given the marks and scores that she felt that she deserved. So when she finally landed it, I’m sure you can guess what ended up happening. The judges were forced to reward her with first place on the podium at Nationals in 1991.

Suffice it to say, the skating organization was not happy with their current champion. Figure skating was a bit odd at one point in time. Despite her talent, they really didn’t want to give Tonya the chance that she deserved. Figure skating is meant to be an extremely elegant sport and the competitors are supposed to portray grace while they perform. Tonya grew up as a tomboy and is very rebellious in nature, all of which comes out when she’s skating.

This is really the crux of who Tonya Harding is and what her story is about. She’s somebody who came from nothing and was able to push herself so hard that she was able to set a whole bunch of new records in female singles. What she was able to accomplish is nothing shy of impressive, and she deserves a lot more credit than she has ever been given.

The Price of Gold

There is a documentary called The Price of Gold that ESPN did back in 2014 as part of their 30 for 30 series that chronicles the events that led up to the events of the 1994 assault. It features interviews from various reports and other people who were involved in the scandal at the time, with Tonya Harding herself also being interviewed about the “incident”.

This is a great documentary because it not only gives you a clear and concise explanation as to what exactly happened and what led up to the events of the assault but why it happened. If the movie does anything wrong, it’s leaving out Nancy’s side of the story. Not that she had much of a role to play in Tonya’s life besides having her kneecap smashed in, but the attack just happens, and there is really no lead up or explanation as to why it happened. It doesn’t go into how the rivalry started or why there was a rivalry between the two girls to begin with. Which probably isn’t all that interesting anyway as it was never anything more than being competitive on the ice. Maybe that could be chalked up to the way the script is written, but it’s still an important detail that gets left out, especially considering this is what leads to the climax of the story.

So I’m just going to briefly explain it: the difference between these two women’s personal lives it what it boils down to. Tonya was a better figure skater than Nancy, but Tonya didn’t have the wholesome family and wasn’t the image that the figure skating organization wanted to portray. Nancy’s parents were still together, and she was the one who was willing to play ball and appear to be the ice princess in order to pander to and please the judges.

There was a clear bias against Tonya, and she knew this was exactly what was happening. So when the truth finally came out about the assault and that Tonya had something to do with it, the skating organization took this as an opportunity to rid themselves of Tonya Harding once and for all. She was banned for life from competing in any figure skating competition. It’s a shame really, because Tonya had such a natural, raw talent. Who knows what she would’ve been able to accomplish had she been able to reach her full potential.

The Price of Gold is currently on Disney+.

Final Thoughts

I have been fascinated with the whole Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan scandal for as long as I can remember. Of course I was way too young at the time and learned all about it well after the fact. But! Since learning about it I can’t help but be completely entranced by the whole thing. I can’t say what that is exactly, but it more than likely stems from the fact that there is so much mystery surrounding the events of what truly happened.

And that right there is the center theme of the entire movie. Truth. There’s her side There’s his side, and then there is the truth. But in a story that is shrouded in lies where does the truth actually lie? Because both Tonya and Jeff told their truth when it came to telling their sides of the story, yet somehow both sides contradicted each other. Tonya has done many interviews since the incident, and when asked if she had any part in organizing the attack, she doesn’t bat an eye when denying it. Which can only lead to one of two conclusions: either she wasn’t complicit in the assault, or she truly believes the lies she has told herself.

I can’t help but view the early 1990’s as a mysterious time, and I don’t mean in a good and magical type of mysterious way but in an odd and weird type of way. There are a few incidences that will forever be shrouded in mystery. We’re smart enough to take some of the pieces of these stories and our common sense is able to put two and two together. But the facts of the matters are nothing will ever truly be proven. This is one of those mysterious stories.

The truth is, nobody is ever going to know exactly what transpired or led to the events in 1994. The funny thing about this movie is that it has a very much he said/she said type narrative. There’s her side, there’s his side, and then there is the truth, and that’s the thing about the truth. Because the truth is, memory is a faulty thing. People will experience the same situation in completely different ways. Nobody will ever experience a situation in its entirety. We are all simply small pieces in a larger story that is playing out around us.

And the truth is, especially in this instance, whatever you want it to be.