I admit I’m a sucker for an old-fashioned sports tearjerker. Isn’t everybody, or at least every guy? Whether it’s Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig talking about being the luckiest guy on the face of the earth, or James Caan as Brian Piccolo dying of cancer, the drama of an athlete cut low in the prime of life is hard to resist.
Then there are the “happy” tearjerkers, like 2013’s 42 (about Jackie Robinson) or the recently released Race, which tells the story of Jesse Owens. Eddie the Eagle is one of those—although to be honest, Eddie Edwards hardly ranks with Robinson or Owens. Edwards’ sport was ski jumping, and he really wasn’t all that good at it—he was simply good enough to come in last at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Plus he never gave up, and that’s what jerks the tears.
In Eddie the Eagle, Edwards is played by Taron Egerton, and he gives Edwards the boyish, infectious zest that Johnny Depp displayed in Ed Wood. (Real life justifies Egerton’s approach more than it did Depp’s: Eddie Edwards may have been the worst ski jumper at the 1988 Olympics, but he was still the best in Great Britain at the time; Ed Wood, by contrast, was a no-talent who only dimly understood which end of the camera to point at the actors, and was usually too drunk to care.)
Written by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton, and directed by Dexter Fletcher, Eddie the Eagle is “inspired by true events.” The inspiration seems to have extended only as far as it took to work in all the standard conventions of a combination ugly-duckling/Cinderella story. Where the facts fit the clichés, they get in, such as in the British Olympic Association’s disdain for Edwards (represented by a snooty Tim McInnerny), and Eddie’s concerned, exasperated and proud parents (Jo Hartley, Keith Allen). If facts don’t fit, they get made up, such as providing Edwards with a washed-up alcoholic coach—but then, if Macaulay and Kelton didn’t invent that, we wouldn’t have the movie’s amusing turn by Hugh Jackman (and Jackman wouldn’t have had another chance to practice his American accent). So the glass is considerably more than half full.
There are hilarious details in Edwards’ true story that I wish were in the movie: the time he broke his jaw and had to practice with a pillow strapped to his face; the helmet he tied on with string; the fact that he was living in a Finnish mental hospital (though not as a patient) when he made the Olympic team. But Edwards was a genuinely nice guy who gave his sport everything he had, and was liked (if sometimes pitied) by all but the puffiest of stuffed shirts. The movie gets that right.
And cinematographer George Richmond and editor Martin Walsh give us an athlete’s-eye-view of ski jumping that makes us understand why Edwards loved doing it. Never underestimate the value of that.
They say the Olympics have changed the rules since 1988 to make it harder for enthusiastic amateurs like Eddie Edwards to come along and bask in their 15 minutes of fame. Too bad. That could mean fewer movies like Eddie the Eagle in the coming decades, so best enjoy them while we can.