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'I, Tonya': Class Warfare on Skates

By Michael S. GoldbergeriBerkshires film critic
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I wasn't looking forward to seeing "I, Tonya," about provocative, world class ice skater Tonya Harding. The events surrounding her quest for Olympic greatness and fellow competitor Nancy Kerrigan's ruthlessly broken kneecap seemed so yesterday, and anyway, I never learned to ice skate. A bunch of fancily clad skaters twirling about on slippery ice while a Rachmaninoff etude plays in the background seemed like an awful yawn. But alas, dear reader, it appears I'm not entirely bereft of the genteel gene required to appreciate such stuff.
 
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not going to move heaven and earth to make sure I don't miss the competitive figure skating events televised from PyeongChang. Rest assured I barely know the difference between a triple axel and a Lutz, though I did know a Sam Lutz. Nope, the compelling interest here is not so much the challenging difficulty or beauty of the sport, which Margot Robbie as the title character dramatically impresses upon us, but rather the sociological barriers Tonya had to confront in her fight to the almost top.
 
Gosh, we're such snobs. Well, not you and I. But what Steven Rogers' astutely class sensitive screenplay, deftly directed by Craig Gillespie, propounds with unabashed muckraking is the built-in intolerance of the event in question, a rather anomalous bit of hypocrisy if you consider the supposed purpose and meaning of sports. But while I wouldn't be so naive to suggest that the Harding-Kerrigan indignity was a turning point in the history of modern athletics, wherein the almighty dollar outplayed fairness, it is doubtless a road marker in the relentless trend.
 
In the director's superb handling of the screenwriter's semi-documentary form, whimsically purposed with stage whispers from the saga's half dozen principals, older Tonya, puffing on a cigarette, bemoans her socioeconomic status not so much personally, but in how it hindered her career. Those powers that be demanded that their figure skaters be models of feminine virtue and breeding. Tonya was working class, had music choices the judges disdained, and simply couldn't afford the dainty and stylish outfits her opponents could buy from the very best houses.
 
But there's much more to it: a subtext that overwhelms the plot with humanizing rectitude. While many of us in Middle Class Land and higher were arrogantly derisive of this interloper from the lesser realms who dared challenge our Fair Princess Nancy, the film ultimately addresses by example this unwitting, casually accepted bias. And there's even a bonus for our moral sense in this lifting of the rock from the squiggly-slimy worms of prejudice. In Tonya's story is the nub and crux of the cultural conundrum currently darkening our horizon.
 
More than once in the portions she narrates, Tonya strikes at the core of the problem, saying pshaw to the anti-intellectual forces who contend otherwise when she sorrowfully confides, "I have no education." She can abide her countrified ways and lack of sophistication as part of life's inequities. But the earnest despondency over something that was neglected in her upbringing, before she had the wherewithal to address it, saddens us. It's tough enough living in the countless towns U.S.A. where the mill has closed, literally or figuratively.
 
The metaphors pour forth. Albeit present-minded, Monday morning quarterbacking contextually tossed into the mix, Tonya is essentially exampled as the poster child of the great financial and educational divide that furrows our collective brow. Part of the Great Unwashed who lays claim neither to that 82 percent of the money held by the lucky 1 percent, nor the higher education that might level her playing field, she is between the rock and the hard place. But oh, can she skate. If only she could get a little help, what my family called "a push."
 
While the ice skating version of the obsessive stage mom played to an obnoxiously venomous turn by Allison Janney makes sure that Tonya's prodigious talent is nurtured and fully realized, Mommy Dearest's heartlessness cannot be underestimated. There is no love-- only blame and intimidation. All of which sets Tonya up for the marriage from Hell. In this hard luck variation on the Pygmalion fable, insult is added to injury when Tonya falls under the guiding spell not of the eventually empathetic Henry Higgins, but of the serially abusive Jeff Gillooly.
 
The ill-starred pairing leads to the tragicomedy of errors and ill will that derailed Nancy Kerrigan and made Tonya Harding the most despised athlete in America. Parsing out the particulars of the unsportsmanlike assault in acerbic, crime drama form, director Gillespie delivers what plays as a fair-minded and knowledgeable chronicle of events. With the dust long settled, its moral center marking on a curve and exonerating where applicable, "I, Tonya" gave "Me, Michael," a more charitable understanding of what might have been.
 
"I, Tonya," rated R, is a 30West release directed by Craig Gillespie and stars Margot Robbie, Allison Janney and Sebastian Stan. Running time: 120 minutes
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