Sunday, February 28, 2016

Eddie the Eagle

"I always turn to the sports page first. The sports page records people's accomplishments; the front page nothing but man's failures."-- Chief Justice of the U.S. Earl Warren

I love some sports because of the drama inherent in the competition. I love all sports ultimately because of the drama inherent in taking a sport seriously and trying to do your best. "Eddie the Eagle" might at first seem an odd subject for an inspirational story. The real world character appeared to be a bit of a joke at the time he made his Olympic appearance, and let's face it. he was not a winner by any stretch of the imagination. He was however different, and judged by the true spirit of the Olympic games, he may be one of the biggest winners of all time. It's unfortunate in my mind that the world as become so cynical, that a sweet, inspiring movie like this will be crushed underfoot by other films that will be forgotten in a week, despite their budgets. 

This is a small story about an unusual character,  it fits into the "Inspirational Failure" category of films pioneered by the original "Rocky". Since the main events of the story really did happen, it has a place in popular culture outside of the movie context and it is hard to understand why it would not be more successful, except that "upbeat" and "inspiring" seem to have become negative descriptions in Hollywood these days. Eddie was not a fool, and in fact he was portrayed as a competent skier ( and in real life, he narrowly missed being on the British Downhill skiing team). What is accurate is that he switched to ski jumping to give himself a better chance at making the Olympics, even though he had little experience. 

Taron Edgerton from last years great "Kingsman: The Secret Service"  plays the adult Eddie after a quick opening section showing Eddie as a child and as a teen. One of the things that help make this movie work is that it does not spend a long time following the child Eddie but uses him simply to set up the contemporary version. It keeps the story focused and it avoids some of the wandering that traditional biopics sometimes get lost in. We get to know him as the awkward, sincere and somewhat innocent athlete who strives to be the best he can, but falls short of the Olympic ideal that he holds out for himself. The movie plays up a battle and antagonism between himself and the British Olympic Committee as a way of building tension and I thought that the largely fictional characters played by Hugh Jackman and Christopher Walken help get the focus on the issue of his desire rather than on the showboating. The IOC has since instituted qualifying rules that would keep out someone like this, but much like the Jamaican Bobsled team, these are the kinds of stories that make sports so compelling. Competition at elite levels is important, but we need the "Rudy" type characters to be able to be part of the pageant of sport as well. 

This movie gets a lot of comedic value out of the situation, but never at the expense of the character. He always comes across as passionate and a big dreamer. Exactly the kind of person who would ask a world champion for some tips and who would not mean it ironically. I doubt that it is true but there was a nice moment when Eddie is going up the lift for his big moment when he encounters the World's Greatest shi jumper, and they share a moment that is about sports and not about winning. If we could get that kind of moment more often in real life, people who see sports as unimportant or distracting from more significant pursuits would get a chance to know the impact that sports can have on character. We have far too many examples of negative sports characters that have dominated the world lately, it's really important to have some from the other end of the spectrum on a regular basis to balance out the less pleasant aspects of competition. 

Jackman plays a cliche role created for the purpose of making the story "more" than just the journey of Eddie, and I liked the fact that he was willing to be in the background for much of the film. The director, actor Dexter Fletcher, manages to make us cringe with every vertigo inducing view of the ski jumps and we flinch when we see the mistakes that inevitably are part of the world of ski jumping. If you are too young to remeber "the Agony of Defeat" take a quick look at this clip:

A ski accident happens at 70 miles an hour and it isn't pretty. Several times I looked over and saw my daughter cringing behind her hands as the true danger of the sport was exhibited. Ultimately, the thrill of victory, even a small one, seems to be enough to get a dedicated person to take the risk. "Eddie the Eagle" is a touching reminder that while not all of us are gold medalists, it is our hearts that ultimately make a soar like eagles.

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