Years ago, before social media made it easy for opinion to swell, Tonya Harding was America’s favorite villain. This tough, talented and tormented figure skater dared to challenge the reign of the graceful Nancy Kerrigan as the sport’s leading royalty. And, somehow, she managed to find herself in the middle of the sport’s greatest controversy when Kerrigan’s knee got whacked one day after practice before the U.S. Nationals competition in Detroit.
For the weeks that followed, between Nationals and the Olympics, people talked about few other things. Never mind what was happening in the world or with the economy, what mattered was Kerrigan’s fate (would she get well in time to compete for Olympic gold) and Harding’s intent (was she, actually, the mastermind behind the attack). Even without social media to fuel opinion, there was little chance for Harding to get a fair trial in the court of public opinion.
Now, it’s her turn. The outrageous film I, Tonya, part documentary, part parody, part biopic, part horror story, embraces the absurdity of its content by portraying Harding’s rise and fall in an appropriately exaggerated manner. This is not a serious film. It is as much about the populace that couldn’t get enough of this story as it is about the people at the heart of the story. Harding emerges as a somewhat sympathetic figure, if we believe her, clueless as to the reasons people don’t like her, fearless in the steps she will take to secure her position in the sport. That she chooses her friends and husbands poorly is only a side note. This woman only cares that she wins. People are dispensable. Especially her mother.
Rarely has a biopic of a popular figure dared to be so outrageous. Think back to Faye Dunaway’s maligned interpretation of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. What makes I, Tonya so fun to watch is that filmmakers Craig Gillespie and Steven Rogers know their leading lady is a cartoon character. They make little effort to provide the standard order backstory that biopics usually require. Instead they place the history of the lady into the lady’s present. What happened in her past, especially in the tensions with her mother, add texture to the story without trying to explain the narrative. For most of the film, this works well. Only in the final third when, surprisingly, the filmmakers turn serious, does the movie begin to lose its footing. Just as any figure skater fears in the final moments of a routine, the movie isn’t sure how to land its final jumps.
The performers shine. Allison Janney, who can play just about anyone, creates a synthetic and sympathetic monster in the form of Harding’s mother. She brilliantly underplays the most overwritten scenes an actress could find. And her timing is exquisite. While Margot Robbie is, fundamentally, calmer than the public perception of Harding, she grows in the performance to offer as three-dimensional a portrait of a one-dimensional heroine as someone could. Together, the actresses are exquisite, powerful, unrelenting.
Yes, that was quite a winter, back in 1994, when Nancy and Tonya dominated the news. I wonder what else was happening?
Film Nutritional Value: I, Tonya
- Content: High. Filmmakers Craig Gillespie and Steven Rogers strike a chord of absurdity in this recreation of the ice skating battle between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan in the 1990s.
- Entertainment: High. While the film may be billed as an epic confrontation on the ice, the real battle occurs within the soul of a lady willing to do anything to win.
- Message: High. The movie reminds us that, despite its exaggerated approach, that we must confront personal truth to move forward. Or we may never feel real.
- Relevance: High. No matter how funny the looks from the early 1990s may be, it’s good to be reminded how commitment to fairness should never go out of style.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film, talk with your older children about the realities of competition, conflict and authenticity.
(I, Tonya is rated R for pervasive language, violence, and some sexual content/nudity. The film runs 1 hour, 59 minutes. Four Popcorn Buckets. For more about movies visit arts.hersamacorn.com.)
Bernie balances reality and fantasy
By Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
Just as I, Tonya occasionally visits reality on its journey into the fantasy world of figure skating, Richard Linklater’s Bernie fits an exaggerated story of revenge into a traditional view of small town life. And, while I, Tonya relies on fabricated testimonials to connect its narrative, Bernie uses the actual comments of real people to bring authenticity to its lunacy.
Of course, anyone fortunate enough to wander through the piney woods of East Texas experiences the unique friendliness and casual approach in a special part of the country. Without any big city issues to complicate daily routines or too much controversy to get people talking, life in this area of the Lone Star State hasn’t changed much over the years. Driving the two-lane roads to the town of Carthage offers the same views as it has for decades. And, once in this pleasant town of 6,000 people, most critical discussions happen at church, a local café or the Dairy Queen.
In the 1990’s, however, a larger-than-life mortician named Bernie Tiede gave the people of Carthage plenty to talk about. For several years he charmed, entertained, spoiled, supported, engaged and ultimately confused the down-to-earth residents who can usually see through anything and anyone. Was this smooth-talking man – so willing to do anything for people – as unselfish as he appeared or was his act little more than a well-planned scheme to deceive, steal and ultimately murder?
Bernie, a most delightful examination of the case of Bernie Tiede, offers the gossip of the Inquirer and the suspense of City Confidential in an entertaining format reminiscent of the famed mock-u-mentary comedies of Christopher Guest. Writer/director Rick Linklater, working with Skip Hollandsworth who first penned the story for Texas Monthly, frames Bernie’s ascent with the most outrageous would-be spontaneous comments by actors and actual local citizens. The result is a fresh, surprising and ultimately touching comedy that reminds us to never judge any book by its cover or any man by his smooth conversation skills.
When we meet Bernie, perfectly packaged by Black, he is new in town, doing everything he can to endear himself to the locals as he works to connect with the community. At work, he turns routine funeral services in meaningful events; at the local theater he stars in and directs musical productions; for the youth he works with sports teams; at church he sings lovely solos. Everyone in town is taken by Bernie — as they report in the “spontaneous” comments offered on camera — especially when he befriends a mean old woman (the delightful Shirley MacLaine) who, until Bernie, had not a friend. Together they travel the world and spend her money until, suddenly, he begins to feel trapped by the relationship. And Bernie reveals he is all too human after all.
For Black, Bernie is a triumph. After his original performance in School of Rock he seemed to be trapped by routine roles in formula comedies. This work, so fresh, so authentic, brings all of his talents to the front. He can be funny, and moving, and can nail many a musical number, including a show stopping rendition of 76 Trombones in a scene from a community theater production. Likewise, MacLaine, who maintains her unique ability to capture the subtleties of eccentric characters, is in fine form, as is Matthew McConaughey as the local district attorney whose character bridges the mock-u-mentary commentary and the focus of the film.
The film, after it ends, does leave us wondering how much is true, and what may be the creators’ imagination. And, like I, Tonya, this doesn’t really matter because Bernie is so entertaining. Like the man it celebrates, and the people who adored him, we want Bernie and his movie to be just what we hope they actually are.
(Bernie is rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language. The film runs 104 minutes.)