The Meryl Streep-Tom Hanks collaboration “The Post” is drawing plenty of glowing attention for its portrayal of the noble side of journalism via the Washington Post’s historic battle to print the Pentagon Papers. But the indie upstart “I, Tonya” packs even more of a punch by showing how the Fourth Estate started its terrible tumble into round-the-clock tabloid sensationalism.

Starring Margot Robbie in a career-making role as Tonya Harding, the US Olympic figure skater who attained worldwide notoriety in 1994 by planning a vicious attack on her main competitor Nancy Kerrigan, “I, Tonya” is positively electric to watch. A stinging satire of the media and what seems to be white-trash culture, it also executes stunning pivots into serious emotional terrain at unexpected moments — with the result being a film that draws stunned gasps from the audience in both humorous and tragic moments.

The film tells its story through the multiple perspectives of its three main characters: Harding, her now-ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and her utterly nasty and vicious (and yet very funny) mother LaVona (Alison Janney). An online scroll opens the movie, informing viewers that the film is based on actual interviews with the trio in which they were “irony-free and completely contradictory.”

Thus the stage is set for a darkly funny and unique tale of the American Dream gone awry, opening with a 4-year-old Tonya being dragged onto an ice rink by LaVona, who rudely begs skating coach Diane (Julianne Nicholson) to take the child on as a student. Diane turns them down, until she sees how nimble Tonya already is on the ice, and the look of sheer joy that crosses her face when she skates.

Skating literally becomes Tonya’s entire life during childhood, as she spends nearly every free moment in practices, even as LaVona constantly berates her for not trying hard enough. Fueled by rage at her mother and the schoolmates who taunt her for being poor, Tonya channels her anger to push ever harder to become the greatest skater anywhere.

But then, she meets and quickly falls for Gillooly, a seemingly sweet and shy man who quickly reveals his dark side as an abuser. Not knowing if she’s worse off living with her husband or her mother, Tonya navigates the emotional minefields constantly exploding around her while rising ever higher in the skating world — until she devised her desperate, ill-fated plot to have a bodyguard friend smash Kerrigan’s kneecaps right before a key performance.

From there, all hell breaks loose, and viewers may think they remember the story of Harding and her rapid downfall. However, director Craig Gillespie and screenwriter Steven Rogers continually find ways to keep the plot packed with awe-inspiring twists.

“I, Tonya” could have been just a hatchet job on its subjects, going for easy, mean-spirited laughs. Yet it provides genuine insights into Tonya’s incredibly difficult life, showing that she never had a chance to know anything but skating and never was taught critical reasoning or empathy by her mother.

Finding the human stories underneath what could have easily been caricatured characters, the film also serves as an indictment of each and every one of us who tune into train wreck television, enjoying the shame and suffering of others as entertainment. It’s a bracing and incredibly valuable reminder of how easily and completely Americans have lost their souls via an obsession with the soul-sucking master of us all — the television screen.

 

Capsule Reviews

THE COMMUTER 

Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson

Length: 104 minutes

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rating: PG13

After two years in apparent hiding, Liam Neeson is back doing what he does best: kicking ass in January movies that start the year off with a bang. His fourth collaboration with Serra continues the winning streak of “Unknown,” “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night” by adding Hitchcockian twists and atmospherics to the tale of a man asked to find a mysterious passenger on his commuter train for $100,000.    Grade: A

THE POST

Stars: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Rating: PG13

The story behind the decision by the Washington Post to print the infamous Pentagon Papers, a free-press battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, is recounted in occasionally rousing but often boring fashion in a movie that feels like homework more than entertainment.   Grade: B

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver

Length: 152 minutes

Directed by: Rian Johnson

Rating: PG13

The latest epic in the series is a terrific game-changer and a vast improvement over “The Force Awakens.” Mark Hamill is fantastic as a haunted Luke Skywalker striving to make one last stand against the evil Empire, while Adam Driver is much better as villain Kylo Ren than he was in “Awakens.” Rousing action and plenty of heart make this a vibrant entry and well worth seeing.  Grade: A

THE LAST SHOWMAN

Stars: Hugh Jackman, MIchelle Williams, Zac Efron

Length: 105 minutes

Directed by: Michael Gracey

Rating: PG

Hugh Jackman uses his considerable charisma as he sings, dances and gives a terrific performance as legendary showman P.T. Barnum. The composers of “La La Land” deliver an impressive score blending hip hop and classical to create vibrant songs that drive a richly entertaining story. Efron and Williams are outstanding as well in the year’s best musical. Grade: A

THE DISASTER ARTIST

Stars: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen

Length: 103 minutes

Directed by: James Franco

Rating: R

James Franco does amazing work both in front of and behind the camera in this humorous history of the making of one of the worst films of all time, 2003’s “The Room.” Casting his brother Dave as the best friend of eccentric filmmaker Tommy Wiseau – whom James himself plays- is a brilliant move, drawing out a surprising amount of heart from what could have been simple mockery and making this a “Rocky” for indie filmmakers.   Grade: A