Words to describe Dexter Fletcher’s Eddie the Eagle? Heartwarming, entertaining, exhilarating, conventional. Before I consider the rest that make the film an extremely satisfying one, let’s consider the last one – conventional. It’s about once a week that I find myself defending convention. Convention is a blanket statement that I hate the unmodulated use of about as much as the phrase ‘Hollywood Film’. Maybe it’s not the word as such, but with the tone in which it is said. It’s always uttered with a sense of disdain, a haughtiness, an idea that one’s sense of what is cinema is too far above what could be found at the multiplex. It exists at the same juncture where the word ‘entertainment’ has come to rest, not looked upon as a show of skill, not crediting how hard it is to make something genuinely, lasting, rise-from-your-seat-with-applause entertaining, but rather spat out with disgust.
Convention doesn’t mean anonymous uniformity. It doesn’t mean the Marvel brand of template, completely removed of artistry or differentiation for fear of scaring away the audience, resulting in a complete lack of dramatic stakes. It doesn’t mean the countless films that pass through cinemas every year without much fanfare, not due to small marketing budgets but complete lack of difference from the many that came before them, destined to be forgotten by the next news cycle. Any moment of tension, whether it be death or faux-thoughtfulness, is quickly dashed with the bare minimum of impact. We know that this character will not be dead, or this plot point is around the corner, so why bother? Captain America: Civil War promised that it was going to be about the consequences of violence inflicted by the now recognisable band of good-looking superhumans, also known as the Avengers, but Marvel’s tendency for never going outside the narrative structure committed to film so many times before meant that it once again, despite best intentions, produced the same film.
But back to Eddie the Eagle.
In Australia and the UK, unlikely Olympian Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards is, like Steven Bradbury and Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani , a fondly remembered figure from a time where the world was a little more innocent and the Olympics a bit more committed to its original idea of being for amateurs and about sharing a love of community, a mantra that seems to be quickly discarded after the opening ceremony nowadays. An endearing failure like Bradbury and Moussambani, Edwards quickly ascended to fame at the 1988 Winter Olympics as the first British ski jumper since 1929, despite coming last.
Director Dexter Fletcher cut his teeth on musicals, the type that turn Scotland into a sunshine-dappled wonderland where the people break into Proclaimers songs at a moment’s notice (2014’s delightful Sunshine On Leith, that was sadly underseen), so it’s no surprise that Edwards’s story is made into a film that leaves the audience more exhilarated by the moment it finds itself in, rather than the grim aftermath once the press have packed up.
The film is high on the idea of the intoxicating power of dreams, passion, and teamwork from the opener, where a young Eddie with thick-framed glasses and leg braces is walking to catch the bus to Rome to become an Olympian. Of course, he’s quickly convinced to come home by his father, but he sits at the kitchen table, where the camera lingers on his Olympics souvenir book, a sign of things to come.
Of course, we know that Eddie (played by Taron Egerton as an adult), with his unsinkable passion, is destined to achieve his dream. After unsuccessful attempts at the summer Olympic sports (we see weightlifting, hurdles, and javelin in a fast-paced montage), he discovers downhill skiing, which he excels at until he misses a spot on the 1984 Winter Olympics team. Of course, it’s a minor setback for him, and he quickly decides to try ski jumping, moving to Germany to train as the sole member of the team, reluctantly helped by alcoholic Olympic failure Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman).
Upon Googling Edwards’s story after seeing the film, it’s a slight let-down to see that the endearing buddy comedy and exhilarating success story that follows is indeed completely fabricated. Jackman’s character, an initially gruff and bitter former prodigy that eventually softens (of course, otherwise this film wouldn’t be nearly as heartwarming), is a work of fiction. After the Olympics, Edwards eventually declared bankruptcy, before appearing on a string of reality TV shows in Britain.
Yes, the story has been modified away from tragedy to be something we absolutely have seen many, many times before, right down to Eddie’s endearing milk-drinking, clueless naivety (advances from women are treated as interaction with an alien species). But as Fletcher demonstrated in Sunshine On Leith, he’s able to direct even the most familiar of scenarios with a raw, palpable energy (assisted by some skilfull editing by Martin Walsh, a heart-pounding score by Matthew Margeson, and some choice soundtrack cuts, including Van Halen’s Jump!) and earnestness that allows the material to rise above the uniform, and have emotionally involving tension and stakes. It’s unashamedly fun and overwhelmingly entertaining. An example is the number of scenes which feature the jumps. None have a sense of certainty, all place the audience on an edge. Some end in triumph, some in tragedy. The latter are pounding moments of failure. The former are such moments of joyful release that they were greeted by spontaneous standing ovations and cheers. A film that is able to play its audience so perfectly, so viscerally, whether it’s found at the multiplex or not, is a rare achievement worth celebrating.