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Wednesday, January 16 , 2019, 2:15 am | Overcast 54º


Cinema in Focus: ‘I, Tonya’

3 Stars — Challenging

In the history of modern Olympics, there are standout moments that forever will be remembered as great accomplishments in artistry and athletic skills. There are also moments when the whole world will remember the worst of human behavior, whether it was the shooting of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, or the 1994 attack on figure skater Nancy Kerrigan by competitor Tonya Harding’s ex-husband. It was this latter bizarre and very public attack that got Harding banned from professional skating for life and became the basis for the film I, Tonya.

Harding, played masterfully by Margot Robbie, gives us a view of the rise to Olympic status that is not glamorous or one that emerges from a life of sports privilege. Raised by LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), a single mother who disrespects her daughter and anyone who comes in contact with her, we see Harding rise in her stature and skills in spite of the less-than-adequate loving relationship or circumstance into which she was born. (Both Robbie and Janney were nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress at the 2018 Academy Awards, and Janney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.)

Harding, who never had the training and economic support afforded many other Olympic hopefuls, dropped out of high school and rose to the enviable position as the Skate America champion in 1989. By the time she was on her way to the 1994 Olympics, where she was to become a silver medalist, she had married and then divorced her husband, Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). At the top of her game in 1991, she earned the distinction as being the first American woman to successfully land a triple axel in competition.

Then it all came tumbling down. Between her conniving mother and jealous ex-husband, and with the bumbling assistance of her so-called bodyguard, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), they conceived a plan to eliminate Harding’s competition in the Olympics. Their tactics and attack rivaled the Three Stooges for incompetence, and although Harding knew nothing of the plot to break Kerrigan’s leg, it was Harding who paid the biggest price when she was banned for life from the competition.

It is hard to say where Harding’s life would have gone after the Olympics, but the circumstances of her family dealt her a fatal blow in the sport that she loved, and her moment of self-achievement was lost forever. Raised in obscurity, she descended back into obscurity after the Olympic debacle and is still living out her life in meager circumstances. Despite her love of skating, in the late 1990s Harding went on to become a professional boxer.

Many countries subsidize, train and cultivate their athletes for competition on the world stage, but most of the athletic disciplines in the United States are left to local associations and people who can afford on their own to participate in early training. Professional backing, though, doesn’t mean that the temptation to cheat goes away. All we have to look at is the 2018 Olympics where the Russian Federation was banned from participating because of widespread doping to increase its competitive position.

The primary tragedy in I, Tonya is centered on what happened in her Olympic loss. The equally obvious tragedy is the dysfunctional lack of love that her mother gave her in her formative and adult years. Unfortunately, that lack of support is far more pervasive than the story of Harding in the world of sports, and it's epidemic in our culture today.


» Do you believe the decision to ban Harding for life was just? Why?

» Do you think that the Olympic system is fair? Why or why not?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is the retired pastor of Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara and lead superintendent of Free Methodist Church in Southern California. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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