In a year of #MeToo and #TimesUp we have strong female characters and a very hotly contested best actress category (that I still think Frances McDormand will walk away with hands down) but it also seems to be a year of very vicious mother-daughter relationships. Three Billboards told the tale of a mother fighting to give her daughter a voice from beyond the grave but also showed that their relationship was far from perfect while she was still alive. Lady Bird tells a beautiful story about a teenage girl suffering from growing pains as she struggles to find acceptance from a mother who truly loves her but struggles to understand her. We watch as they stumble awkwardly around each other trying desperately to communicate and find some kind of middle ground. And then we have I, Tonya. A mother that can be described as nothing short of vicious and volatile, who uses her daughter for her own gain and shows her not a shred of affection. Worse than that, she is physically, mentally and emotionally abusive throughout and it’s a wonder Tonya Harding come out alive.
I think this review can contain very few spoilers as it seems everyone and their mother knows the Tonya Harding / Nancy Kerrigan story. Although I didn’t know anything about it until I heard about this movie. I don’t know if that’s because of my age or because of the great American bubble – where they assume that because it was a big deal in America it must have been a big deal everywhere. To be fair, here in South Africa we were quite consumed with preparations for our first ever free and fair democratic elections to be too bothered with the upcoming Winter Olympics. Basically, the gist of it is, there is an unspoken law that figure skating is for your hoity toity types. The girls who went to charm school and learnt to sip tea with their pinkie fingers stinking out, who have naturally straight pearly whites and know all about the airs and graces. Either no one told Tonya Harding this, or they did, repeatedly, and she just didn’t care. She is the exact opposite of what a figure skater is meant to be, but she still kicks freaking ass at it. But as we all know, this tends to displease the hoity toity powers that be.
She is one of only eight women in the history of the sport to land a triple axel jump in competition. In 1991 she became the first ever woman to land it in the short program. She was the first woman to successfully land two triple axels in one competition, and she was the first woman ever to complete a triple axel combination with the double toe loop. However, despite these record-breaking performances, which all occurred in 1991, she was unable to replicate them, and her competitive results began to decline. She placed fourth in the 1992 Winter Olympics and sixth in the World Championships, failing to qualify for the 1993 World Championship team. In preparation for the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer it seemed she was back on her game, but her qualification would still come down to her performance at the US Figure Skating Championships in January.
Then the unthinkable happened, Nancy Kerrigan, Harding’s long-time competitor and arch rival was attacked with a baton to the knee after a practice session and was unable to compete. Prime suspects: Harding’s ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her self-appointed bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt. A media frenzy ensued. Jeff was found to be the ‘mastermind’ behind the plan, while Shawn hired two men to carry out the attack itself. They all served time in jail for their roles in the crime. Harding’s only crime was not coming forward and turning her ex-husband over to the authorities once she found out they were responsible for the attack. She denied any prior knowledge of the attack and still denies her involvement to this day, but many find it all just a little too convenient. With Nancy out of the way, Tonya won the US Championships, securing her place on the Olympic team. Fortunately for Kerrigan, the injury to her leg was only a bone bruise and she recovered in time to compete and win silver at the Olympics.
Harding finished eighth, returning home to plead guilty to conspiring to hinder the prosecution of the attackers. She received three years’ probation, 500 hours of community service, and a $100,000 fine. After conducting its own investigation of the attack, the United States Figure Staking Association stripped her of her 1994 US Championship title and banned her for life from participating in USFSA-run events as either a skater or a coach. They concluded that she knew about the attack before it happened and displayed “a clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship, and ethical behavior”. It was as good as a life sentence in prison. She didn’t even have a high school education. She was twenty-four years old and all she knew how to do was skate and she was bloody good at it. To ban her from doing it was one thing. But to stop her from coaching, or from being involved at any level? At the age of twenty-four? To me, that’s cruel.
So that’s the story. The film itself is shot documentary style, or ‘mockumentary’ style at times, it gets so outrageous. Screenwriter Steven Rogers based his script on actual interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Gillooly (held separately of course), whose stories he said were so contradictory they didn’t even agree on what they did on their first date. The film lobs around from one person’s perspective to the next, with ridiculous and ludicrous plot points, it’s hilarious to see actual interview footage in the end credits and discover that those things actually happened. The film deals with some harsh issues around alcoholism, child abuse, and domestic violence and treads a very fine line between taking them seriously and turning them into a farce. Margot Robbie plays the part of Tonya with such ferocity that she paints a clear picture of a woman who gave as good as she got. She was born into a harsh world where she only encountered harsh characters and never, ever caught a break.
It’s hard to do a History vs Hollywood on this one because the movie isn’t specifically based on an historical account, but rather on multiple viewpoints and recollections of the past. I must say, I felt quite manipulated after having watched the movie, as it is very obviously told with a sympathetic nudge towards Tonya. I cried when they banned her from all skating activities, but then, when I reflected afterwards I thought “But if she did arrange to have that chick hit, then she should be banned”. It was sheer fluke that baton only resulted in a bone bruise, I have no doubt the intention was to completely shatter her knee cap. A lot of sympathy is garnered through the abusive relationship she has with her mother, but we only have one half of the story here. The screenwriter and Oscar-nominated Allison Janney who plays the part of LaVona, Tonya’s mom, admit that a significant portion of the character is fictional, largely because they couldn’t track down LaVona to speak to her. It seems most likely they couldn’t track her down because they didn’t look, because Inside Edition had no trouble finding her for an interview in November 2017.
I think we just have to accept that there are some parts of this story that we may never know, that will forever remain a mystery – one of those questions I would love to ask the powers that be if I ever got the opportunity: Like who killed JFK? Did OJ do it? Whatever happened to Jimmy Hoffa? Was Tonya Harding in on the plan to kneecap Nancy Kerrigan? Whether or not she was, no one take away the triple axel from her. She was a tremendous athlete, excelling in a world that didn’t want her. They can take away her right to compete, but they can’t erase those jumps from history. In fact, they had to use computer graphics to recreate them for film, because only two women are capable of doing them today and they wouldn’t risk it for a movie that close to the Olympics. So, say what you want about her, but the girl sure could skate.