It was impossible to miss the coverage of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan story back in 1994. It was impossible to miss Harding’s complaints about her laces during the Olympic Games later that winter. Of course, the events that get into the spotlight don’t always tell the full story, and they certainly don’t offer a complete view of the individuals involved.

Although it is still arguably incomplete, the look at Tonya Harding (at least as a filmic character) offered in “I, Tonya” is incredibly well-rounded. Directed by Craig Gillespie and with a script from Steven Rogers, the film features Margot Robbie in the lead role and she is nothing short of fantastic.

This portrayal of Harding herself is, without a doubt, the best thing in the film and cannot have been an easy feat. Robbie is not only funny, but gives the audience a Harding with whom they can empathize, even through what it terms “the incident.” And, it does both of these things while never letting her off the hook.

Somehow, “I, Tonya” deftly threads that needle, making her a victim of her situation and still making her culpable for her actions. Throughout we see a Harding who shirks responsibility for so many of the problems in her life, even those of her own creation.  One feels bad for her watching the film, but not bad enough to absolve her.

Soon after it begins, it becomes clear that what the film really is giving us here is a spin on the classic underdog tale. Those who know the end of the story know that it isn’t going to finish with a happily ever after, but that doesn’t matter in the least – it is an amazing journey.

Raised by an overbearing, abusive, mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), Harding takes to ice skating at an early age but comes from a very different place than most of the other individuals on the ice. Unable to afford the proper clothes and with a non-traditional selection of music, Harding is seen as an outsider in the skating world, one who, as she gets older, doesn’t get the scores she deserves because of that outsider status.

The story is offered up through interviews, ones with the characters of Harding, Golden, and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan, who is also wonderful here) as well as others including a former “Hard Copy” reporter (Bobby Cannavale) and Gillooly’s friend, Shawn Eckardt (Paul Walter Hauser), whose contacts were the ones to attack Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) in Detroit. Although this is a fictional recreation of the events, it is still mind-blowing that any thing like this could have occurred – and that sense is only heightened as the credits role and the audience is offered real interview footage with the individuals involved. This actual interview footage also makes the work of some of the actors (notably Hauser), even better.

Robbie is outstanding, but so is Janney, who is a force to be reckoned with. During the interview portions of the film, she has a bird on her shoulder with whom Golden seems to have a love-hate relationship, and that in and of itself is a wonder. At one point, Janney’s Golden gives the bird the most withering of stares.  It is just one of the unexpected but hugely funny moments in the film.

“I, Tonya” is an exceptional example of a black comedy. It is a film which actually manages to get a laugh comparing the physical abuse Harding suffers at the hands of her mother and Gillooly with the attack on Kerrigan.

One of Gillespie’s more interesting choices in the film is to, on occasion, break the fourth wall. While the audience expects the interviews to be directed towards the camera, on occasion during the events themselves Harding, or someone else, will reference that the filmic nature of what is being witnessed. Although disconcerting the first time it occurs, the moments soon work themselves into the flow of the story as a whole and, at least once or twice, act as a release of the tension during what could cause the film to turn darkly dramatic instead of darkly comedic.

The figure skating sequences in the film may not always make it convincing that Robbie is the one out there on the ice (she did do some of the skating, but not all of it). However, the camera is regularly moving throughout the movie and it manages to largely work during the skating sequences (according to the press notes, camera operator Dana Morris could skate and operated the equipment while on the ice).

We are in an era where pop culture events from previous decades are regularly dissected in movies and television.  While the events themselves can sometimes feel unworthy and their depictions perfunctory, such is not the case with “I, Tonya.”  It won’t answer every question one has about what happened, but it is an engrossing examination some of the individuals behind the incident.

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photo credit: Neon