Nancy & Tonya: TV Review

AP Photo/Phil Sandlin
The engaging documentary distinguishes itself from others on the same subject by focusing on the usually press-reticent Kerrigan, who speaks candidly here.

NBC Sports' documentary looks back at the figure skating rivalry between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, but this time, Kerrigan finally tells her side of the story.

"Nobody in Hollywood would have bought that screenplay. Even as a comedy, it was too preposterous," says Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Hersh, one of several members of the media -- including former CBS News anchor Connie Chung, USA Today columnist Christine Brennan, and NBC figure skating analyst and gold medalist Scott Hamilton -- who comment extensively, and with some humor, about the unbelievable events twenty years ago that changed figure skating forever. But as Hamilton points out, it also changed media forever.

The story of Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding is also a story of the media. The public's obsession with this "reality TV before there was reality TV," as Brennan puts it, was pushed hard by the press. In NBC Sports' new documentary Nancy & Tonya, Hamilton talks about the famed Olympic practice where Kerrigan and Harding were on the ice together for the first time after the attack, and how tabloid reporters were next to the New York Times and the Washington Post, all lined up, two ends of the spectrum colliding together. In this coverage, "they were all equal."

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The continued obsession with the event is something that Harding claims to be baffled by. "Who cares?" she says with exasperation towards the end of the documentary. The answer is everybody, which is why Nancy & Tonya is the second documentary on the subject to come out in such a short span. But what makes Nancy & Tonya different from ESPN's recent "30 for 30" documentary The Price of Gold is Nancy Kerrigan. 

While both programs detail the events leading up to the infamous crack heard 'round the world, as well as the fallout afterwards, The Price of Gold only had Tonya Harding to comment on the events. Nancy & Tonya's biggest coup is that the typically media-reticent Kerrigan speaks to NBC sportscaster Mary Carillo openly and at length about everything. When it comes to the timeline of the attack and what happened after, Nancy & Tonya is exactly in step with Price of Gold. But Price of Gold went much deeper into the specifics of the attack, and also into Harding's childhood and terrible marriage to Jeff Gillooley. Nancy & Tonya gives most of its time over to Kerrigan -- and it should, because it's the documentary's strongest point. 

From there, the documentary makes itself clear about where it stands when it comes to the two women. In early, quiet establishing shots, Kerrigan is shown in the present day, gracefully skating by herself. Harding is shown in an empty biker bar doing tone-deaf karaoke. It seems at first like a low blow to Harding, but her attitude and later blatant falsehoods (helpfully juxtaposed with truth) leave viewers taking her in now as everyone always has. Big talent, big waste. "You make mistakes, you move on, you learn from it," she says. Has she?

For her part, Kerrigan acknowledges Harding's talent and achievements as a skater, even admitting that while they both came from financially poor backgrounds, the stability of Kerrigan's home life was something that helped her. There's an emphasis on Kerrigan's background, in fact, with the skater described as "the hockey-loving tomboy," who eventually "learned to play by the unwritten rules of the game" -- something Harding refused to do. And despite her somewhat icy image, Kerrigan comes off in her interviews as frank and genuine. 

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But as Carillo continues to press Kerrigan (not half as hard as she does with Harding, though), she does get a little prickly about Harding, and Harding's level of involvement in the attack. Though both women initially brush off the events as having happened a long time ago and not being part of their lives today, it's clear that the interviews are dredging up strong emotions from both, giving the documentary the zip and tension everyone wants to see.

Nancy & Tonya puts its emphasis not only on Kerrigan, but also (almost wistfully) on that media circus that defined --and continues to fuel -- the drama, (though fails to acknowledge its own part in the continued story). "And this was before O.J.!" Connie Chung says with amazement. There aren't many things about the media coverage then that look any more chaotic than viewers are used to now.  But it was an event that led, at the time, to almost 50% of American households tuning into the figure skating finals at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer. It feels like there's nothing like that in 2014 that could so captivate a nation, and yet, something so tragic about the fact that the last thing that did was, as Kerrigan puts it, "all sad."