It may not have nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nod, but I, Tonya stands as one of 2017’s finest flicks. Top-notch work from Margot Robbie and Oscar-winner Allison Janney distinguish Craig Gillespie’s biting, often riveting take on the notorious life of figure skater Tonya Harding. Universal’s Blu-ray presentation honors this electrifying motion picture with strong video and audio transfers and an array of supplemental material, and comes Highly Recommended.
“I thought being famous was gonna be fun. I was loved for a minute. Then I was hated. Then I was just a punch line.”
Oh what a circus it was. When a baton-wielding thug whacked beloved American figure skater Nancy Kerrigan on the knee after a practice session on the eve of the 1994 U.S. Championships and just weeks before the Lillehammer Olympics, the ensuing brouhaha gripped the nation, pushing more important news off the front page and spawning a scandal-obsessed culture that persists - and sadly defines our society - to this day. What began as a seemingly freak, random assault exploded into a cause célèbre when investigators revealed the ex-husband of Kerrigan’s fierce American rival, Tonya Harding, might have masterminded the attack and Tonya herself might have known about and ok'ed it beforehand. As the Olympics drew near, coverage of the coming showdown between two ice princesses - one a sympathetic victim, the other an outspoken, often pugnacious pariah - dominated the airwaves and provided more guilty pleasure than a catfight between Krystle and Alexis on Dynasty.
Those who lived through it like I did will remember you couldn't turn on the TV without seeing endless reruns of Kerrigan screaming “Why?! Why?!” right after the incident or a barrage of breathless reports by CBS anchor Connie Chung, who relentlessly stalked Tonya as she trained for Lillehammer. Scripted denials and confessions, somber court hearings, and awkward primetime interviews with the bumbling conspirators followed, all of which led up to both the infamous "loose boot" episode that tainted a tearful Tonya’s Olympic free skate, and Kerrigan’s triumphant - yet strangely shocking and disappointing - silver-medal finish at the games. At the time, the Tonya-Nancy saga was deemed the apex of American scandal (the O.J. Simpson trial was still several months down the pike), and like a pack of starving wolves, we devoured every delectable morsel, chewing Tonya up and then spitting her out when our insatiable appetite for her hide finally abated.
It was all so real and yet surreal, and director Craig Gillespie’s captivating chronicle of Tonya’s rollercoaster life masterfully walks a tightrope between the two. I, Tonya, one of the year’s finest films (and most notable Best Picture Oscar snub), explores Tonya’s topsy-turvy, wild and utterly crazy world with a keen eye and precious little sentiment. Blending biting comedy, searing drama, and often hilarious mockumentary elements, Gillespie - aided by an incisive, pitch-perfect script by Steven Rogers that also should have earned an Oscar nomination - gets under Tonya’s prickly skin to reveal a tough, blunt, driven, combative, and completely indignant survivor whose greatest crime just might have been an uncanny knack for making the wrong decisions.
Based on “irony free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews,” I, Tonya laces this outrageous, ripped-from-the-tabloids tale with a wicked sense of the absurd. A victim of physical and emotional abuse first at the hands of her monstrous mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), a crass, foul-mouthed woman who never gave her daughter an ounce of affection, and later by her weaselly, insecure husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), whom she married while still a teenager to escape LaVona’s strangulating grasp, the feisty Tonya (Margot Robbie) grew up fighting and through sheer strength of will became one of America’s top amateur figure skaters. She stubbornly did everything her way, bucking the sound advice of those who knew better, and aside from her prissy on-again, off-again coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), attracted a group of monumental losers who couldn’t have destroyed her more completely if they had tried. As spike-haired, spray-tanned tabloid reporter Martin Maddox (played with over-the-top glee by Bobby Cannavale) so astutely opines about the Kerrigan attack, “We had no idea that something like this could be done by two of the biggest boobs in a story populated solely by boobs!”
Take away the stupidity and it’s the stark, classic contrast between Harding and Kerrigan that piqued our interest 25 years ago and fuels this fascinating film today. Graceful, elegant, and refined, despite her working-class Boston background, Nancy carefully crafted an ethereal presence on the ice that consistently won the hearts of fans and raves from judges, who felt she personified the squeaky-clean, Barbie doll image of a female American figure skater. Tonya, on the other hand, was an athletic jumper with a brassy, often abrasive personality who wore her redneck background like a badge of honor, muscled her way through dull routines, favored heavy metal music, made her own costumes because she couldn’t afford to buy them, and performed perfunctory choreography with a lack of flair that resulted in low artistic scores and constant derision from the skating establishment. Desperate for validation and the fame and endorsements that should have come from being the first woman ever to land a triple axel jump in competition, Tonya, it seemed, would do anything to secure her place in both the spotlight and history books. She got her wish, but not on her terms, and at what cost?
Who knows what the truth is, and the movie doesn’t try to sort out the conflicting stories. Everyone tells their side and we're left to believe whomever we choose. All the viewpoints, though, are colorful (to say the very least), and the unexpected moments when the characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience provoke welcome laughs. In addition, more formal, contemporary mock interviews allow almost everyone a chance to reflect on their respective dysfunctional pasts, comment on the unfolding action, and contradict the observations of others. Screenwriter Rogers must be an old movie fan, because he swipes a couple of key lines from two classic films, The Lion in Winter (“What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”) and Stella Dallas (“Let me see her face”), both of which lend LaVona a whisper of humanity that keeps her from becoming too much of a caricature.
The story moves at a breakneck pace, thanks to brilliant, Oscar-nominated editing that stitches all the various story threads, flashbacks, and interview segments into a cohesive whole, and a kick-ass soundtrack compiled largely of hits from the ‘70s and ‘80s like ‘Devil Woman,’ ‘Barracuda,’ ‘25 or 6 to 4,’ ‘Goodbye, Stranger,’ and ‘The Chain’ that perfectly complement the action. Though the intentionally choppy, often frenetic presentation keeps viewers blissfully off balance, it belies the meticulous craftsmanship that distinguishes this superior film. The skating sequences seamlessly blend Robbie's own impressive skating with that of a trained double, and Gillespie takes great care to recreate a host of indelible moments as accurately as possible.
Robbie is a revelation as Tonya, capturing her mannerisms, speech patterns, and angry me-against-the-world aura. Yes, she's way too tall for the part and not very believable as an awkward 15-year-old, but once the story advances beyond its initial stage, she grabs the reins and rides Tonya's mercurial personality for all it's worth. It would be easy to play Tonya as a raging, white-trash harpy, and though Robbie does that part of the time, she adds plenty of subtle dimension to her portrayal to reveal the real person hiding behind the cartoon. It's a bravura performance that deserved the Best Actress Oscar nomination it received. Janney, of course, took home the Best Supporting Actress prize for her no-holds-barred turn as the wonderfully bitter, crude, nasty, cynical, and oh-so-violent LaVona. It's a show-offy role and Janney recites every deliciously snide line with relish. When she's on screen, she dwarfs everyone else, yet manages to contain her larger-than-life character and keep her grounded, despite LaVona's crazy antics.
Both performances dominate the picture, but you can't leave Sebastian Stan out of the conversation. From the moment he first appears, Stan embodies the skinny, nasal-voiced Gillooly, who initially seems like a mild-mannered dweeb, but soon exhibits a disturbing dark side. His is arguably the film's most natural and believable portrayal, though Paul Walter Hauser as delusional mama's boy Shawn Eckhardt, the man who hired the hooligans who attacked Kerrigan and probably should have been confined to the county hospital mental ward, also nails his outlandish role.
Despite its often acerbic tone, I, Tonya is not a pretty tale and doesn’t reflect all that well on its subject or audience. Just like Tonya herself, America willingly enabled and participated in her destruction, and the film not only calls us out and cites our complicity, it also doesn’t absolve us of any guilt. The ever blameless, always defiant Tonya never takes responsibility for her actions, whatever they may have been. She never apologizes for anything either, and - to her credit - doesn’t expect any mea culpas from us. (From her perspective, she’s been beaten up all her life, why shouldn’t we beat her up, too?) Like the judges who fairly or not docked her scores and the media that greedily exploited her to a fare-thee-well, we may not like Tonya anymore now than we did then, but Gillespie’s film wins her a grudging measure of respect and more than a little sympathy. Does she deserve it after all these years? Watch this terrific movie and decide.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
I, Tonya arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve with embossed lettering and photo. A leaflet containing the code for the Movies Anywhere digital copy along with a standard-def DVD are tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for Ingrid Goes West and Beach Rats precede the full-motion menu with music.
If you’re hoping for a lush, pristine transfer that’s as glossy as a freshly Zamboni-ed ice rink, you’ll be disappointed in the I, Tonya transfer. Yet that doesn’t mean this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering from Universal doesn’t accurately reflect the picture’s original look and feel. Director Craig Gillespie chose to shoot the movie on film instead of digitally to achieve a natural, gritty appearance that reflects Tonya’s blue-collar background, redneck attitudes, and the story’s nefarious underpinnings. A variety of cameras, film stocks, and aspect ratios were used to achieve the desired effects, and this transfer seamlessly integrates them, fashioning a free-flowing visual experience that keeps us engaged throughout. Grain levels fluctuate as a result, but they’re always consistent with the action depicted. Contrast and clarity are excellent across the board, colors are bold and vibrant (especially reds and pinks), and flesh tones remain natural and stable. Deep blacks lend the image necessary weight, while crisp whites resist blooming. Superior shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, patterns and textures are well rendered, background elements are easy to discern, depth is palpable, and razor-sharp close-ups highlight pores, hairs, creases and wrinkles, and the garish make-up Tonya often wears. Best of all, not a single nick, mark, or scratch dots the pristine source material and any digital tinkering escapes notice. This high-quality, organic transfer really immerses us in this rollicking tabloid tale and heightens its impact.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is as in-your-face as the film. There’s not a lot of nuance, but all the bold accents like gunfire, punches, body slams, and skate blades slicing into the ice are marvelously crisp and distinct. Surround activity isn’t as pronounced as one might like, but some periodic bleeds to the rears and noticeable stereo separation across the front channels creates a wide, enveloping soundscape. Strong bass frequencies provide a few potent rumbles, and a wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of the hard-rocking ‘70s and ‘80s hits sprinkled throughout the track. No distortion or surface noise sullies the audio, and all the great dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend. Though not as flashy as some of Tonya’s skating, this solid track still has plenty of spirit and serves this exhilarating film well.
Most new releases these days skimp on supplements, but the I, Tonya disc includes quite a few extras, which is good news for film fans.
Audio Commentary - Director Craig Gillespie sits down for a thoughtful and interesting commentary that explores multiple facets of I, Tonya. On the technical front, Gillespie explains his decision to shoot on film instead of digitally, why he used different film stocks, aspect ratios, and cameras, how face replacement was employed during the skating sequences, and how his music choices help maintain the script’s “energy and euphoria.” He also discusses breaking the fourth wall with the characters’ direct-to-camera remarks, adding visual layers to keep the audience “off kilter,” the “tricky dance” between humor and drama, the film’s “immediate, spontaneous” feel, and the frantic shooting schedule that kept everyone on their toes. He calls Sebastian Stan “a revelation,” offers continuous and hearty praise for Robbie’s performance and skating, points out Janney’s improvisations, and notes instances where CGI is used. Gillespie even looks at Tonya Harding’s relationships and hardships, analyzes society’s perception of her and culpability in her story, and expresses both sympathy for what she went through and recognition of her humanity. This is a strong commentary that’s well worth the time investment, if you’re a fan of the movie and the events surrounding it.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 17 minutes) - Four excised scenes are included, as well as two lengthy, single-take recreations of TV journalist Diane Sawyer’s interview with Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Michael Hauser). Watching Hauser in the hot seat in those long takes show just how completely he assumed his character.
Featurette: “All Sixes: The Perfect Performances of I, Tonya” (HD, 4 minutes) - Gillespie lauds his talented cast and states he was “dumbfounded” by Robbie’s “commitment and focus,” while screenwriter Steven Rogers and actors Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, and Robbie herself talk about their funny, cruel characters, the incisive script, and their freedom to improvise in this fast-paced featurette.
Featurette: “Irony Free, Totally True: The Story Behind I, Tonya” (HD, 4 minutes) - This piece looks at the tabloid mentality that fueled the Tonya Harding story and how the script’s multiple perspectives spotlight all of the gray areas that permeate this lurid, often absurd tale.
Featurette: “Working with Director Craig Gillespie” (HD, 2 minutes) - Gillespie talks about what attracted him to the project, while his cast and crew praise his vision, attitude, decisiveness, and sensitivity.
Featurette: “The Visual Effects of I, Tonya” (HD, 4 minutes) - A look at the special effects unit that handled the film’s visual trickery, and the techniques and processes that make I, Tonya seem so seamless and realistic. A step-by-step look at face replacement is especially fascinating.
Featurette: “VFX: Anatomy of the Triple Axel” (HD, 2 minutes) - A series of wipes show off the wizardry of the special effects during one of the skating sequences, going back and forth between Margot Robbie and her skating double during the routine in which Harding lands the near-impossible triple axel jump.
Theatrical Trailers (HD, 6 minutes) - A teaser and two trailers (one green band, one red band) complete the extras package.
As brash, bold, unapologetic, and outrageous as Tonya Harding herself, I, Tonya chronicles the notorious figure skater’s rollercoaster life and the whole Nancy Kerrigan knee-bashing enchilada with an intoxicating mixture of comedy and pathos. Director Craig Gillespie’s biting, in-your-face mockumentary instantly thrusts us into a surreal world of conflict, abuse, intrigue, and bone-headed bumbling on such an exaggerated scale, it just has to be true. Margot Robbie and Oscar-winner Allison Janney file two of the best performances of 2017, and Universal’s Blu-ray presentation honors this electrifying motion picture with top-notch video and audio transfers and an array of supplemental material. It may not have nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nod, but I, Tonya stands as one of 2017’s finest flicks and should definitely not be missed. Highly Recommended.