The more goopy and awe-inspiring a sports story is in real life, the more likely Hollywood will lard on even more sap in the screen adaptation. This is essentially the case with Eddie the Eagle, the determinedly crowd-pleasing biographical tale of Michael, “Eddie” Edwards, a member of the British ski jump team (in fact, he was the entire team) who won the hearts of fans worldwide at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, not by coming in first, but by being there at all. Yet the real story is so nutty and inspiring that the crowd can’t help being pleased, in spite of everything.
Nicknamed “the Eagle” by the besotted press, Edwards was an almost pathologically klutzy competitor with more heart than skill, who refused to give up his childhood dream of becoming an Olympian—even though he never excelled at any sport. Taking up ski-jumping at the advanced age of 25, and only just squeaking in after an improbable series of qualifying events, Eddie defied pundits, advisors of the British Olympic Committee, and common sense to realize his utterly crazy dream.
This is the kind of story that Hollywood eats up, and director Dexter Fletcher masticates cheerfully away on it. Taron Egerton plays Eddie as a lovable goofball, a good-hearted naif who refuses to give in to the naysayers. The filmmakers also throw in Hugh Jackman as Eddie’s reluctant ad-hoc coach. Jackman’s character is only “based on” several people who coached Eddie along the way—meaning that screenwriters Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton are at liberty to invent his character from scratch, so the coach has the requisite demons of his own to face, and is just as desperately in need of redemption.
Unlikely athlete material, Eddie spent much of his childhood in a leg brace. In the movie, as soon as the brace comes off, we see the boy Eddie attempting to train himself in a variety of events—racing, running, hurdles—in the alleyway behind his house, only to crash and burn at all of them. Blind to his inadequacies, and undaunted, he sets his sights on winter sports, but is unceremoniously cut from the men’s downhill ski team by an unctuous official (Tim McInnerny) who tells him he’ll “never be Olympic material.”
As a last resort, he chooses ski jumping. Britain doesn’t field a ski jump team, so Eddie takes himself off to the international training camp in Germany. Bussing tables at an alpine cafe in return for a place to sleep, he’s belittled by the elite Scandinavian ski jumpers who won’t let him join their reindeer games. But he also meets Bronson Peary (Jackman), an alcoholic American driving a snow plow.
Turns out (of course) that Peary is a disgraced former ski jump champion who lost his focus, and turned to the bottle for consolation. (He actually says so in a line of dialogue, in case we didn’t get it.) Peary wants nothing to do with obsessed, genial nutcase Eddie, but (of course) he softens up toward the kid and decides to give him a few pointers—never mind that Jackman is the most fit and best-coifed drunk ever to appear onscreen. The filmmakers rely on Peary’s brooding soul-searching and his need to redeem the downward slide of his own life and career through Eddie to carry the drama.
The thing is, Eddie’s underdog career is dramatic enough. Shunned by the British Olympic Committee because he can’t get sponsors, Eddie drives his dad’s van across Europe to the trials. He’d never skied down a jump in his life until the year before he competed, and (in the film, at least) his odious teammates get teetotaler Eddie too drunk to march in the opening ceremonies.
Still, Egerton and Jackman strike up an appealing rapport. And Fletcher achieves one truly masterful shot when Peary goes down the 70-meter slope one night and soars out over the valley to show the youngsters how it’s done. The cuts are so subtle, it looks like one long, beautiful shot, one breathtaking image that captures the lure of flying that drives these competitors on.
EDDIE THE EAGLE
With Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman. Written by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton. Directed by Dexter Fletcher. A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG-13. 105 minutes.