A rare sports movie in that it has fun and doesn't take its subject too seriously.
Eddie The Eagle
The story of British ski jumper Michael “Eddie” Edwards is of the classic underdog variety: In the 1988 Winter Olympic games in Calgary, he inspired people around the world with his bright personality and infectious enthusiasm, becoming the first ski jumper to represent Great Britain at the games. Funny thing is, Eddie lost. He lost BAD and in spectacular fashion. In both the 70m and 90m events he came in dead last, failing utterly and completely by most competitive standards. Nonetheless, the guy garnered millions of fans simply because he was happy (almost hilariously happy) to be there and do his absolute best.
What Dexter Fletcher‘s Eddie The Eagle gets right is its willingness to poke fun at Eddie, played here by Kingsman: The Secret Service‘s Taron Egerton. Too often movies of its ilk take their subject too seriously, in turn making the story feel schmaltzy, pruned and disingenuous. Fletcher’s film takes several liberties with Eddie’s journey, most notably inserting a fictional trainer (Hugh Jackman). This is easy to swallow: Historical accuracy will never be the most important aspect of telling someone’s life story. Capturing and paying respect to the person’s spirit and reflecting the true value of their accomplishments? That’s everything.
It’s the essence we’re after. In the case of Eddie, his essence is an ability to find pride, joy, and positivity in the face of adversity, derision, and even failure. When he was eliminated from Britain’s downhill ski team, he opted to take up the even more dangerous discipline of ski jumping instead of giving up. When he jumped a comparatively short distance than his competitors at the games, he celebrated and played to the cameras and excited crowds, simply happy to live his dreams. That’s his legacy, funny and inspiring at the same time, and that’s precisely how the movie feels.
Egerton—unrecognizable from his character in Kingsman, donning Edwards’ signature thick glasses, thick mustache and awkward posture—exudes the unlikely Olympian’s plucky positivity without being a caricature. When Eddie’s blue-collar dad (Keith Allen) pulls up to a bus stop to find his son packed and ready to leave home in pursuit of his Olympic dream, he barks at him to get in the car. “Have you ever had a dream?” Eddie asks, to which his father defiantly barks, “To be a plasterer! Let’s go home.” With his chin held determinedly high, Eddie says with compassion, “Bye, dad.”
When Eddie arrives in Germany to train for Olympic qualification, he meets a drunk ex-jumper, Bronson Peary (Jackman), who reluctantly (after relentless pestering) agrees to train young Eddie to land jumps instead of breaking his neck. The juxtaposition of the grizzled veteran and the clumsy rookie is good fun and would have worked better with a few tweaks to Jackman’s character or even a different casting choice. The Austrailian actor simply looks too put together and dashing to be a convincing drunken mess, and the alcoholism angle screenwriters Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton go with feels unneeded, a futile attempt at making Bronson look like a loser. The actors do have chemistry, though, and Jackman’s pure gold in a scene that sees him illustrate the art of a takeoff via a feigned orgasm á la When Harry Met Sally. The moment is so absurd (especially in the family-movie context) that you can’t help but laugh at how much fun the movie’s having.
With the help of Bronson, Eddie finally makes it to the Winter Olympics in Calgary (despite dastardly attempts by the British Olympic Committee to block his participation, mostly because he’s goofy looking) where he at first enjoys his sudden stardom but then is reminded by coach Bronson to take himself more seriously and put forth his best effort despite the fact that he’s been ski jumping for a fraction of the time his competitors have. To the shock of everyone watching his Olympic escapades, Eddie vows to compete in the potentially deadly 90m jump, which leads us directly into the movie’s obligatory “He did it! He did it!” crescendo. The rousing finale’s done excellently though a random subplot involving Bronson’s old mentor (Christopher Walken) deflates the excitement for an excruciating few moments. There are no revolutionary changes made to the underdog formula, but the movie is special in that it celebrates the pride one finds in the simple act of participation.
Ski jumping, as it turns out, is one of the most cinematic of sports: Watching a human being soar through the icy air with long, slender skis stuck to his feet is an awe-inspiring sight, and Fletcher gets a lot of mileage out of a sport that pretty much looks the same every time (the variable being whether the poor guy eats snow or not; we see both successful and failed landings), using CGI stylishly and tastefully and giving us a terrifying sense of how goddamn high these athletes actually go. Looking down from the top of the 90m jump is bloodcurdlingly scary, and Fletcher makes sure to drive home just how crazy Eddie is to take up such a dangerous sport with such little experience. Once Eddie’s in flight, however, Fletcher has fun with interesting angles and brisk editing that, at its best, is exhilarating.
Most of Eddie the Eagle‘s success can be attributed to young Mr. Egerton. He makes us laugh at Eddie without making him clownish, and he makes us care for him without being corny. It’s a spot-on performance that sets the pace for everything else in the film, and he should be proud of the fact that, in this instance, he acts circles around the infinitely less memorable Jackman, a bonafide screen veteran. The gap in tone and timing and attitude between this role and Egerton’s turn in Kingsman is cavernous, and he makes the jump effortlessly (apologies for the totally-intentional pun).