I, Tonya just misses a triple axel on Blu-ray .
The Production: 3.5/5
I, Tonya is a truly guilty pleasure. It’s certainly a very good movie, and it’s loaded with some great performances, particularly from Allison Janney. And it’s about a recent event in Olympic ice skating that most people still remember pretty well. And yet, one still walks away at the end of the experience feeling more than a little dirty about the whole thing. Which is probably appropriate, given the story itself. The movie follows various accounts of the life and skating career of Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), whose considerable ice skating talent got her all the way to the 1994 Winter Olympics before everything blew up. I, Tonya is a kind of kaleidoscopic view of Harding’s life, as told by Harding, her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and even her unfriendly mother LaVona (Allison Janney). The movie properly focuses on the performances, albeit with a few exhilarating moments of fast-paced skating to make sure everyone remembers what all the fuss was about in the first place. Those performances are quite strong, especially Allison Janney, who easily walked away with an Oscar for her work here, and Margot Robbie, who works to find an empathetic core in Harding beneath all the grit. The thing is, I don’t think it’s accurate to think of this movie as a drama, or even much of a biographical story. This is much more of a dark, dark comedy – one where the movie seems to delight (like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) in getting the audience to laugh at something completely inappropriate whenever possible. Once one settles into that mode, which becomes apparent from Allison Janney’s first unhappy stare at the camera with her bird on her shoulder, the movie rolls along through Harding’s life in a manner that can be extremely entertaining.
SPOILERS: Tonya Harding was not the first person to make a complete mess at the Olympics, nor will she be the last. But she and her husband and their friends certainly get points for the trashiness in which the whole situation went down. As people still remember today, Harding’s skating competitor Nancy Kerrigan was attacked before the 1994 Winter Games in an obvious attempt to remove her from Harding’s way in getting an Olympic medal. When it became obvious that the attack was set up by Jeff Gillooly, Harding and several others were held accountable. Harding herself has spent the rest of her life in the shadow of those actions. Looking at the evidence and at the various real accounts supplied since then, including Harding’s own autobiography The Tonya Tapes, the situation and Harding’s knowledge of it have never really been in doubt. In her own book, Harding admits to knowing what was going to happen, and she pled guilty in court to trying to cover it up afterward. The result for Gillooly and the others was jail time. The result for Harding was an effective lifelong sentence – she can never coach or participate in professional ice skating again.
MORE SPOILERS: Looking at that scenario, one would think that this story was a tragedy. But that’s not really how it played out at the time. Instead, the clubbing attack on Kerrigan, and the situation around Harding and her ex-husband turned into one of the biggest tabloid frenzies to ever hit the Olympics or any other sport. The notion that one of the ice skaters would hire someone to whack the knee of a competitor struck a nerve somewhere in the heart of America. For several weeks in early 1994, this story was the one making headlines – in a memorably ugly, trashy way. Harding would repeatedly attempt to parlay her name into something over the following ten years, including forays into music, acting and even boxing. She actually won a few boxing matches by decision before that idea fell apart too. She released her book a few years after that and apparently tends to stay clear of the limelight these days. Although she did reappear to do promotional interviews when the movie came out. Notably, she only had two criticisms of the film – that it portrayed her as swearing too much, and that she disagreed with an implication that her fur coats were made from rabbits she’d hunted.
FINAL SPOILERS: The strength of the movie is that the filmmakers clearly know the tone of the material, and director Craig Gillespie keeps things just on the edge of going from being darkly funny to being offensive. The one who carries that weight with the greatest confidence is Allison Janney, who simply embodies LaVona’s bitterness and exasperation with the world and her daughter. There’s one sequence very early on, where LaVona denies hitting her daughter more than once – which is followed by a potpourri of shots of LaVona going to town on her little girl. This should be a shocking and even sad sequence – and yet, it’s shot and edited for the absurd comic effect. Right after LaVona absolutely denies this stuff happened, we cut to biff, pow, crash. There are a couple of strong dramatic moments here and there with Margot Robbie – particularly one moment late in the story when LaVona visits her during the tabloid storm and Tonya mistakes her attention for actual mothering rather than an attempt to tape Tonya saying something interesting about the attack. And there’s the genuinely moving scene of Harding being sentenced to never skate again, played with a lot of heart by Robbie. (I’ll note that the real Harding still continues to skate. She can never do so professionally, but she says she does enjoy skating – when she’s not in too much pain to do so.) The general approach to the movie from both Gillespie and writer Steven Rogers is to embrace the chaos of multiple characters’ versions of the various scenes, usually by having characters announce to the audience that they never did what we’re now witnessing. (The best example of this is a shotgun-toting Harding looking right at the audience and denying that the shots she’s taking at Gillooly EVER happened…) The movie also embraces the notion of these characters being “white trash”, both in the form of Harding herself saying it and in the use of appropriately cheesy 70s rock to accompany Harding’s greatest skating accomplishments. If there’s a weakness to this film, it comes from that same notion of the characters being seen pretty much just in the mode of being “white trash”. It’s easy to think of Harding as someone who tried to rise above that background and couldn’t, but that focus takes away from a more primal one – that of Harding as a competitor, trained to think of other skaters as enemies rather than as fellows. There’s also an essential element in here about how the Harding story was overrun by the tabloid frenzy – to the point that a truly petty scenario was elevated to something far more than it deserved, and to the point that the public’s fascination with seediness was shown to be a complete embarrassment. By missing those parts of the story, or at least by dismissing them, the movie just misses out on hitting at something a lot more interesting. Like Harding, the movie gets close enough to Olympic gold to see it – and it still falls a little short. But the movie does leave the viewer with a grace note – as the credits roll, the audience gets to see footage of the real people the actors have been playing, with a special reel of Harding’s admittedly spectacular skating from the height of her career.
SPOILERS DONE: I, Tonya has just been released on Blu-ray and DVD. The Blu-ray contains the movie in solid high definition picture and sound, with a few extras thrown on for good measure. There’s a perplexing commentary with director Craig Gillespie, three trailers for the movie, about 17 minutes of deleted scenes and a few short featurettes totaling about 16 minutes. The DVD contains the same materials, albeit in standard definition. Based on the movie itself, the performances by Janney and Robbie, and the interesting nature of Craig Gillespie’s commentary, I’m going to Recommend this title for purchase.
3D Rating: NA
I, Tonya is presented in a 2:39:1 1080p AVC transfer (@ an average of 24 mbps) that is actually a little more complicated than one would first think. The interview footage, particularly that of Paul Walter Houser as Shawn Eckhardt, has been shot in other formats, usually in a 4×3 frame where the characters talk directly to the camera before we plunge back into the anamorphic world of the story. I should note that there’s a fair amount of CGI used during the skating sequences, to put Margot Robbie’s face onto the ice skater who rocks through Harding’s various routines, including the famous triple axel. The CGI and the real materials blend seamlessly, adding to the illusion that somehow Margot Robbie could have learned to skate like Harding in less than the nearly 2 decades it took the real woman.
I, Tonya is presented in an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track (@ an average 3.0 mbps, ramping up to 5.1 mbps when the Foreigner and Hot Chocolate songs play). There’s actually a fair amount of music to fill the surrounds, and much of it activates the subwoofer. But for the majority of the movie, we’re really in the world of these characters talking about each other – either within their scenes or in their interviews to the camera.
Special Features: 3/5
I, Tonya comes with a few bonus features, the most interesting of which being Craig Gillespie’s commentary.
Commentary with Craig Gillespie – This is a scene-specific commentary with director Craig Gillespie, who previously made films such as Lars and the Real Girl and The Finest Hours. Gillespie goes into great detail about the cast and the work done to mount the various scenes, including the different camera formats used for the interview segments. In the case of Shawn Eckhardt, who actually died over a decade ago, Gillespie notes that he worked to make sure his interview footage looked like old videotape rather than a fresh discussion. But this commentary has more going on it than just a travelogue of the movie’s production. Gillespie notes when watching the early scenes of LaVona attacking her young daughter (the montage I noted earlier, built and edited for comic effect) that it’s all very sad and shocking and that he realizes how hard it must be for the viewer to watch this. He doesn’t sound like he’s joking about this – he genuinely seems to think he’s made an extremely serious film. This approach continues to the end, when he notes in looking at the footage of the real Tonya Harding that this story is a real tragedy. I honestly don’t think I’ve heard a commentary coming this far from left field on a movie since the Coppola commentary on The Godfather Part III. It’s as though the director is watching a different movie than the one we’re seeing. And it brings to mind a theatrical paradox I’ve seen before. It’s possible that Gillespie was indeed trying to make a very, very serious tragic movie – and in pushing that hard with these characters, he wound up in the world of dark comedy. I’ve seen the same thing happen with productions of Samuel Beckett plays, where an ultra-serious approach will result in hysterical laughter from the audience, while an approach that emphasizes the comedy takes the plays to an uncomfortably grim area. This commentary is actually educational for a lot more than just the movie at hand, and I recommend you give it a listen after seeing the movie once without it.
Deleted/Extended Scenes (17:25 Total, 1080p) – Five scenes are included here, most of which simply add more material to existing scenes. An early date scene where Harding introduces Gillooly to her mother now has another few minutes where LaVona is caught trying to smuggle a bagful of chicken out of the “all you can eat” buffet. A later scene where Gillooly begins to unravel from the pressure of the media glare has been extended to show him trying to bluff his way past a reporter without making any headway. And there’s a generous amount of raw video of the interview with Shawn Eckhardt, slates and all. None of this is particularly necessary to the movie – but some of it is a lot of fun. Particularly all the chicken in the bag.
Behind the Scenes (15:53, 1080p) – Five very short featurettes are included here, each of which includes many of the same clips from the movie. (I must ask again why these guys don’t just do a single featurette and not keep repeating the same clips over and over again to pad the time.) The featurettes, which all run about 3 minutes or less, include “All Sixes: The Perfect Performances of I, Tonya”, “Irony Free, Totally True: The Story of I, Tonya”, “Working with Director Craig Gillespie”, “The Visual FX of I, Tonya” and “VFX: The Anatomy of the Triple Axel”. The last two pieces are the most interesting, focusing on the face replacement and crowd multiplying CGI used in the movie. The last piece is itself a motion study clip, showing the actual footage of the skating double in a nearly empty skating rink, and then showing the result of replacing her face with Margot Robbie and adding a capacity crowd in the stands. I can’t say that there’s much more here than that, but that last material is worth taking a look. For the rest of the production information, I recommend going with the commentary instead.
DVD Edition – A standard definition DVD of the movie is included in the packaging. It contains the movie in standard definition, with an anamorphic transfer, an English Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (@448 kbps) and the same special features as found on the Blu-ray, albeit in standard definition.
Digital Copy – Included in the packaging is an insert with instructions on how to obtain a digital copy of the movie.
The movie is subtitled in English. The usual pop-up menus are present.
I, Tonya may not be a classic film, but it’s certainly entertaining – in a deliberately inappropriately funny way. The performances alone merit some attention – particularly Margot Robbie’s work and Allison Janney’s Oscar-winning turn as the unhappy mother. The Blu-ray comes with solid HD picture and sound, and an attention-getting commentary from director Craig Gillespie that may be worth the price of admission by itself. On the strength of the performances and the memorability of the commentary, this Blu-ray is Recommended for purchase.