' ' Cinema Romantico: Eddie the Eagle

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Eddie the Eagle

The 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary were abundant in incredible athletes rendering astonishment, like, say, Matti Nykänen, The Flying Finn, a ski jumper who achieved death-defying measurements in earning two gold medals for the 70m and 90m events. The 1988 Games, however, were also known for people like Mr. Nykänen’s non-equal, Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, a British downhill skier turned ski jumper who became a folk hero by finishing last in both the 70m and 90m events. Edwards’ accomplishments, recounted in Dexter Fletcher’s fairly fictionalized film that was just released, starring Taron Egerton as the titular Eagle, ignited a debate that subsists – namely, whether the Olympics are meant simply for the best of the best, or whether they are open to all who are simply willing to put forth the immense dedication that it takes to compete?

That was a question also ascribed to the Jamaican Bobsled team of the ’88 Games, an unlikely squad that also got the silver screen treatment way back in 1994’s “Cool Runnings”, and from which “Eddie the Eagle’s” screenplay by Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay borrows heavily. But while adopting “Cool Runnings’” admitted formula and sentiment, “Eddie the Eagle” manages little of the agreeable kookiness or spirit. It yearns to argue for staying true to yourself in the face of considerable odds, but rarely stays true to Eddie himself, too often making him a comic simpleton in the name of cheap laughs rather than consistently presenting him as an eccentric adventurer.

This is first glimpsed when Eddie, a downhill skier, fails to qualify for Calgary not because of his non-achievements on the hill, but because he does not convey, as he is told, the necessary Olympic aura, evinced in a dried up and shriveled sequence where he accidentally runs into a fellow skier which causes a chain reaction as numerous other skiers then topple like dominoes. Luckily though, Eddie realizes that since his native England does not field a ski jumping team, he can qualify for the Winter Games by merely landing a lone ski jump. Intending to train himself, he lights out for Germany, repeatedly crash lands, drawing the ire of everyone on the hill, including Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a one-time promising ski jumper who is made American, I assume, simply to make the movie more palatable for American audiences.

Peary is an archetype, of course, because everyone is archetype, right down to The Angrily Disapproving Father Who You Wish The Warmly Approving Mother Would Hand Divorce Papers. Still, archetypes in and of themselves don’t have to be bad things. (There is also the Dignified English Sportscaster, an archetype in which the Dignity actually is all present and accounted for since he is played by Jim Broadbent.) Peary is basically what disgraced coach Irv Blitzer was to the Jamaican Bobsled team in “Cool Runnings.” But then, Blitzer was played by John Candy, always an underrated dramatic actor, with genuine pathos that made this turn-around compelling. Hugh Jackman, on the other hand, whose character is a drunk as an extension of his past ski jumping disgrace, never quite manages pathos. He’s much better evincing a simple, if effective charisma by way of exasperation with his charge who he can’t help helping.

Jackman is not the only performer at odds with his portrayal in the script; the same goes for Egerton as Eddie. There’s the famous story (not included in the film) wherein the real Edwards, upon arriving in Calgary, walked directly into an automatic door that didn’t open and spilled his suitcase. It was an outlier, and Edwards feared everyone would see him as – his words – “Mr. Magoo.” And sure enough, that’s pretty much how Fletcher chooses to see him, turning our hero into a loser whose Coke bottle glasses aren’t meant to resemble vision problems as much as *goofball*. The Olympics, meanwhile, are rendered as an athletic grade school, marking Eddie as the new kid and everyone else as bullies, like some snooty member of the British Olympic team punking poor Eddie with a few too many shots which causes our hero to miss the opening ceremonies. It’s not that this inane prank didn’t happen in real life as much as it is a moment beneath the unconventionally courtly performance of Mr. Egerton.

Indeed, Egerton has this kind of sad-eyed yet empathetically determined omnipresent look over the top of those thick glasses that really brings home the Nothing: Impossible manner of his entire plight. No matter how dumb his character is sometimes written, Egerton cuts through to find warm determination instead, and, in a way, Egerton finds himself fighting back against the “Ski School”-ish pratfalls as much as the real Edwards fought back against the idea that he didn’t belong.

The film builds, as it must, to the climactic final jump in the 90m event, and before it happens, the film fantasizes a brief summit between Edwards and Nykänen (Edvin Endre) in which the latter essentially gives the We Are Not So Different, You and I Speech, but in a wondrously wonky way befitting the real Nykänen. It ascends to the level of idiosyncrasy you wish emblemized the entire movie. Alas. Still, by putting these two jumpers back to back, Fletcher is arguing that aside from the color Gold, there is no difference between first and last, and that you can very much win by losing.

Flecther buttresses the conclusion with a quote of the modern Olympics’ main proselytizer, Pierre de Coubertin, who said that “the most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part.” Of course, de Coubertin was born of the aristocracy, and saw the Olympics’ amateurism as a means for exclusivity, rendering this famed quote more like fortune cookie blarney. But that’s the Olympics in general, contradictory exercises in athletics which unintentionally mirror the contradictions of the film itself, mocking its main character even as it exalts him. And much like the Olympics rope me in every four two years in spite of themselves, at the end, when Eddie soars (not that far) through the Calgary air, I disregarded all the flaws and gave myself over to it completely.

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