Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 48 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 3.5
For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,
yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice,
so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Director Dexter Fletcher’s outsider story set before and during the 1988 Calgary Olympics must be the ultimate underdog story. Actually it begins when Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards (Taron Egerton) as a disabled boy wearing a leg brace but still dreaming of becoming an athlete. His parents throw cold water on this, but years later he still is trying to find his sports niche, despite his father’s (Keith Allen),“You are NOT an athlete!”
Eventually deciding that skiing is his sport despite his ineptness, he decides he will try out for the British Olympic team. The down-hill’s team’s head official agrees with his dad, “You’re not Olympic material.” With the quiet encouragement of his Mum (Jo Hartley) he heads for a German ski training camp. Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a once promising skier fallen onto hard-drinking ways, lives at the training camp, serving as a snow clearance worker. He scoffs at the idea of Eddie’s Olympic dream, but is finally worn down by the young man’s persistent appeals for help.
After failing to qualify for down-hill racing, Eddie discovers some loopholes in the bylaws that could make his trip to the 1988 Olympics come true after all. He could enter as a ski jumper. There is no British competitor for this because no Brit has tried for well over fifty years to compete in the event. Eddie himself has never jumped before, so he seems headed for serious injury when he moves from the small jump to the higher ones. Indeed, part of Peary’s motive for helping him is to save him from seriously injuring himself.
At the Olympics Eddie is the object of scorn and derision from the other athletes, especially Finnish superstar Matti Nykanen (Edvin Endre). Having begun skiing before they were old enough for school, he scoffs that anyone who has been skiing for just a year or two should have the audacity to compete against them. Because of his thick glasses, ungainly style, and naïve personality, they think Eddie is an embarrassment to the Games.
Back home his parents watch the events on TV, embarrassed themselves by the snide remarks of the sportscaster. Though Mum clings to her hope for his success. Eddie, who has been dubbed “The Eagle” because he had flapped his arms as if they were wings before a jump, ignores all of this. Against all expectations Eddie, after an initial failure which ends in his being carried away on a stretcher, manages to land upright. His dance of delight is caught on camera, earning him a large fan base because of his pluck.
Eddie earns no medals, but nonetheless returns home with fame and even respect. Indeed, of all the athletes depicted in the film, Eddie shows that he best lives up to the founder of the Olympics Pierre de Coubertin dictum quoted in the film, “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in Life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
Although this highly fictionalized film about a real person is very much an orthodox sports film, it is at the same time counter-cultural in its not so subtle declaration that winning is NOT everything. Oh yes, there is that high-sounding statement by Pierre de Coubertin, but how many athletes really believe him? Eddie does: it is not winning, but perseverance, akin to that of the widow banging on the door of the uncaring judge, that is important in life. Eddie is very much like the members of the Jamaican bobsled team, which also competed against the odds in the ’88 Olympics, chronicled in the delightful film Cool Runnings. (In the latter film the idea of Jamaicans who have never seen snow forming a bobsled team to compete at Calgary seemed just as ridiculous as Eddie’s thinking of competing in the ski jump event!)
This is by no means a great film due its heavy-handedness—it’s sledgehammer approach leaves little for the audience to figure out. Sylvester Stallone’s original Rocky, exploring similar themes, is far more artistic, but its riff on the gospel theme of the powerless moving from last to first (Eddie actually finished last in the ski jump event), and of the necessity for perseverance to overcome obstacles, make this worth the attention of people of faith. I suspect there will be far more “losers” like Eddie than champions like Matti Nykanen in the kingdom of heaven.
This review will be in the April 2016 issue of VP with a set of discussion questions.