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I, Tonya

Right before the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, a man is assigned to hit ice skater Nancy Kerrigan with an iron rod by ice skater Tonya Harding‘s ex husband. A funny and engaging biopic with an excellent cast.


Right across the Erika Hess Ice Stadium in Müllerstraße in Wedding there used to be a cheap German restaurant where I sometimes had Königsberger meatballs after work. A married couple sat there once with a little ice princess in tow two tables away and were very loud in the almost empty restaurant. It was mostly the mother complaining about the family of the German champion at the time. “They are incredibly vulgar people, they don‘t belong in the association, the daughter is quite terrible as well.“ They made it clear: ice skating is cutthroat and it had a lot to do with social status.

Shortly after, during the preparations for the Olympic winter games in Calgary 1994, the US ice skate champion Nancy Kerrigan got clubbed in the knee with an iron rod. It was ordered by Jeff Gilloly, the ex-husband of her competitor Tonya Harding. His friend Shawn Eckardt, who called himself Harding‘s “bodyguard,“ organized the attack.

Once there was this girl who
Swore that one day she would be a figure skating champion
And when she finally made it
She saw some other girl who was better
And so she hired some guy to
Club her in the kneecap

– “Headline News”, Weird Al Yankovic, 1994

The German media called Tonja Harding the “ice witch,“ the international press found “poison dwarf“ to be fitting. Nancy Kerrigan appeared on Saturday Night Life as a host, Harding was banned from all ice skating competitions and professional shows, was on probation for 3 years, and had to pay a fine. Harding has always denied knowing about Gillooly and Eckhard‘s plans. Gillooly said the opposite in court. The affair was a huge, world-wide media event that has left a mark on pop culture till today. The malice which comedian Weird Al Yankovic sang with gradually transformed into her being seen as a tragic figure.

And her childhood was unhappy, and her mom was really weird
Her husband liked to hit her but it was poverty she feared!
'Cos she grew up in the trailer parks not like most other girls
With their gliding and their sliding and their whirling little twirls

– “Tonya’s Twirls”, Loudon Wainwright III, 1999

Craig Gilmore‘s film I, TONYA is an empathetic and very entertaining portait of the athlete. In flashbacks and reenacted interview scenes the film shows the energetic and clumsy white working-class young woman that didn‘t have a shot. Tonya (Margot Robbie) makes her own competition costumes. It‘s too tacky for the judges. She plays ZZ Top instead of classical music. That‘s too vulgar for the judges. At one point she asks them why she never wins even though she‘s obviously the best skater. Because they don‘t want her as a representative, is the answer she gets. Tonya Harding, 1.55m, with sturdy thighs and huge take-off power, was not an elegant skater. Her movements were more jerky than Kerrigan‘s or Katharina Witt‘s, who participated in her last Olympic game in 1994. Tonya had speed, power, and technique. An athlete, not a princess. Her only chance was to do something that no one else could, and she managed to do that. She does a triple axel in the US championship, the second woman to do so after Midori Ito and the first US American.

Tonya Harding, my friend
Well this world is a bitch, girl
Don’t end up in a ditch, girl
I’ll be watching you close to the end
So fight on as you are
My American princess
May God bless you with incense
You’re my shining American star

– “Tonya Harding”, Sufjan Stevens 2018

I, TONYA is about a survivor, but she isn‘t glorified as a hero. I, TONYA is also one of the best and more entertaining sport films in a very long time. We learn exactly what a triple axel is: jumping forward on one foot, three and a half turns in the air, landing backwards on your foot. A completely absurd idea. On the other hand black French skater Surya Bonaly liked to flip on the ice, she jumped on one leg and landed on one. She also didn‘t win often and the move was banned.

The highlights of the film are the precisely staged interview scenes which the magnificent cast turns into showpieces. Margot Robbie is enraged as Tonya and shows a woman that has a lot of practice in verbal self-defense but keeps making herself suspicious by vehemently claiming her innocence. She knows this and tried to control herself, but she breaks at some point and not necessary at the predetermined breaking point. She chain smokes at a kitchen table, leans forward when she wants to emphasize a point, chews her gum while smoking, curses, claims to be happy, is as angry as a volcano inside. Tonya isn‘t responsible for anything. Whatever the case may be, it was always the others. Margot Robbie is visually miscast, she seems too tall, too old, too beautiful. Tonya Harding looked like a disturbed child in front of the TV cameras even though she was already 24, but Robbie embodies the role in a way that‘s a pleasure to watch.

Alison Janney as Tonya‘s nightmare mother LaVona Golden gives the unbearable person the bitter dignity of someone who hates themselves and the world in a complete way. She never recognised her daughter‘s achievements. She is convinced that her relentless toughness and coldness made a Tonya a champion. Tonya flees into the arms of brutal idiot Jeff Gillooly who keeps hitting her but always manages to tie her back to him. Sebastian Stan, who is clearly happy to be able to play a real person despite being a permanent Marvel fixture as the “Winter Soldier,“ enjoys showing Gillooly staggering from therapy speak into showing himself as the psychopath he is. Paul Walter Hauser as his friend Shawn, who believes he is Tonya‘s bodyguard and claims to be a secret agent but still lives with his parents, steals every scene with his comedic tour de force.

I, TONYA is a a very funny film filled with compassion for its characters who failed because of the realities of classist society and because of their weaknesses and self-delusions. During the end credits we see Tonya Harding‘s original performance at the Skate America Championship. Yesterday Mirai Nagasu did a triple axel in the Olympic Games in Pyeongchang yesterday. She achieved something “historic,“ says Eurosport. Yes, indeed she did.


Translation: Elinor Lewy


USA 2017, 119 min
Genre: Biography, Sportfilm, Drama
Director: Craig Gillespie
Author: Steven Rogers
DOP: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Montage: Tatiana S. Riegel
Music: Peter Nashel
Distributor: DCM
Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Caitlin Carver, Bobby Cannavale
FSK: 12
Release: 22.03.2018


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