Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB.5. USA, 2017. Clubhouse Pictures, LuckyChap Entertainment. Screenplay by Steven Rogers. Cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis. Produced by Tom Ackerley, Margot Robbie, Steven Rogers, Bryan Unkeless. Music by Peter Nashel. Production Design by Jade Healy. Costume Design by Jennifer Johnson. Film Editing by Tatiana S. Riegel. Academy Awards 2017. Golden Globe Awards 2017. Gotham Awards 2017. Toronto International Film Festival 2017.
“Everyone has their own truth, and life does whatever the fuck it wants,” Tonya Harding tells us at the end of this hilarious mockumentary, based on the life and career of a figure skating champion who became world famous with one swipe to the knee. A competitor’s knee, actually, as an inept hood reportedly hired by Harding and her husband Jeff Gillooly viciously hit fellow skater Nancy Kerrigan with a police baton after a practice session in January 4, 1994 (he was so inept that Kerrigan managed to recover in time for the Olympics and took a silver medal). The entire globe was very quickly thrilled to this lurid tale of friends turned rivals and had an easy time seeing Harding, already unpopular for what was considered poor sportsmanship despite her considerable skill on the ice, as the villain who knowingly went this step too far to ensure her own success in the rink. Director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers are here to open the story up to wider possibilities, and have compiled a humorous, blistering experience based directly on Harding and Gillooly’s testimonies that reveals Harding (played here by Margot Robbie) to be more than just the poor trash she was often portrayed as after the Kerrigan incident, giving insight into her background (abusive mom, abusive husband), her dedication (figure skating was basically her entire life) and her skill (she’s one of the few women in the world to have pulled off that Holy Grail of figure skating moves, the triple Axel, and is the first to ever do it twice in one competition). Early scenes of childhood involving a hysterical Allison Janney as her foul-mouthed, chain-smoking and mean as sin mother lead to her relationship with Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), which veers between devotion and violence until Harding decides to break it off with him and things (not surprisingly) only get worse for her. Determined to win her back, Gillooly becomes obsessed with Harding’s career, teaming up with his ridiculously inept friend Shane Stant (an incredibly funny Paul Walter Hauser) to ensure his ex-wife’s success but fudging the details every step of the way and going much further than originally intended; the result ended Harding’s career in skating despite her always maintaining that she had no knowledge of the planned attack on Kerrigan. Many will see this film as an exoneration of Harding’s guilt, using the tragic aspects of her life to plead sympathy while inducing countless giggles from how low class and dimwitted everyone is (except for Janney’s Lavonda, who is funny precisely because of how smart she is beneath all that cruel sass…who in their right mind can resist the pleasure of her uttering the word “moustache” at a TV news report). The film actually leaves the matter of Harding’s culpability open to interpretation, as she and Gillooly have differing opinions on the matter, but it makes no difference: the takeaway from this film is that it’s not our place to judge what we don’t know or understand without wider context even if she did do everything we accused her of. Did we take into account, at the time, the weight of disadvantage Harding had against her before she could have even considered the possibility of hurting her teammate? Despite being a physical sport requiring athletic skill, figure skating places so much emphasis on a competitor’s appearance and family background, essentially expecting a Disney princess who just happens to skate, and a young woman whose family was an angry single mom who throws knives at her, and a goofy husband with a nasty right hook and lamentable moustache, not to mention a young woman who had a bad habit of yelling at her judges was never going to get too far in that world even if she’d kept her nose clean. It appears as if Harding’s mistake was that she worked at figure skating the way an athlete in any other sport would do (she would have been better off playing hockey) and never quite understood why it wasn’t all about the staking. All that said, the reason why all the above doesn’t add up to a great movie (and it should), is that director Craig Gillespie is so determined to make sure we get the important message in the story that he forgets to be either spontaneous or kind in the way he presents everything, which is surprising for a director who once made us fall in love with a blow-up sex doll. The whole thing always seems performed and never natural, and having gorgeous movie stars play these characters feels like the filmmakers are making fun of their townie-ness, with a sense of the burlesque in the performances that prevents the film from really hitting deep. Robbie manages some pretty impressive moments despite this, though, and they really burn; I’ll never think of Harding again without considering her inability to catch her breath while stressing over lacing up her skates, or putting her clownish makeup on and trying to smile through tears in the mirror.