When you consider the life of an athlete, you realise – to your surprise – how breathtakingly boring it must be. We see people like Mo Farah or Bradley Wiggins once or twice every decade for a few hours in fantastic international sporting events. But in the intervening years there are punitive training schedules, draconian diets and unwavering, slavish devotion to a single (very specific) personal passion.
I’d hate to be a filmmaker tasked with telling an athlete’s story. Fine, there are anchor points every so often where the athlete performs, and the audience can share in the excitement of the stadium crowds in the background, but what’s there to do with the rest of the two hours you need to fill? Scenes about calorie control? No. Perhaps that’s why the latest effort, and I use the word loosely, to make the ‘film about an athlete’ isn’t actually about an athlete at all: it’s about Michael Edwards, better known as Eddie the Eagle.
Eddie the Eagle is perfect for a film. He only started training two years (call it one year, no-one’ll check) before the 1988 Olympics, so there’s no need to tell the boring story of the years of effort he didn’t put in to the sport. He’s an underdog: he’s got funny glasses, and his work as a plasterer before the Olympics means the film can paint him as an impoverished outsider in a UK team of public schoolboys. He’s portrayed by the silver-spoon-less Taron Egerton, which is at least refreshing at a time in British film where most of the cast of The Night Manager can be traced back to the same £30k per year Oxford prep school.
Whatever doesn’t fit precisely into the classic underdog formula – you know, the one better executed by Billy Elliott and Cool Runnings, which are guiltily referenced in Eddie – can easily be fabricated. Hugh Jackman’s reluctant coach, a jaded alcoholic who was previously the star of the US ski-jumping team, is both entirely fictional and lifted wholesale from a parody sketch by Mitchell and Webb in 2007. “I bowled a wide in the World Ashes Cricket Cup!” Mitchell wails, pint in hand. The pint is replaced by a stars-and-stripes hipflask – given up by the last scene, since alcoholism can be cured by vicarious Olympic not-quite-success. Otherwise, the character is identical.
The entire film is a hackneyed caricature of this same formula. The clichés kept piling up, faster than I could count. There is the snobbish official, Tim McInnery with his ridiculous toupee – who wheels out another perfectly serviceable version of Blackadder’s Captain Darling. There’s the disapproving-turned-disbelieving-turned-passionately-supportive father, who is given the funniest line in the film early on: “One of these days you’re going to walk in here in a wheelchair!” There’s the blindly indulgent mother, who at one point goes so far as to give the family’s savings to Eddie without his father’s knowledge, a move which, if done anywhere other than movie-land, would constitute serious financial mismanagement.
There is the compulsory bloody montage scene, with shots of Eddie training in wacky ways as his scores improve and Jackman’s telegraphed frowns of concern becoming smiles of triumph. There are the bureaucratic German race officials for whom “everything must be done to ze letter’. There is the group of toffee-nosed British winter Olympian men – while it’s probably not fair to call them Riot Club clones, you certainly wouldn’t leave them alone in a room with a severed pig’s head.
But by far the biggest cliché in the entire film is Eddie himself. There are a million Eddies in bland feel-good films like this, and there will be a million more after him. He’s the poor, naïve, awkward boy, rough around the edges, with a good heart and a determination to succeed that transforms into an impossibly fast improvement in skill. He is Billy on the dancefloor, or Rocky in the ring, or even Eggsy, Egerton’s breakout performance in Kingsman, in the field. And he is as fictional as his coach.
The real Eddie, far from the bumbling jester we see at the start of the film, was an excellent downhill skier who very nearly represented the UK in 1984. One major disadvantage he had, though, was his weight. He came in at 9kg heavier than the next jumper in his Olympic jumps. It’s no surprise that this was cut, as movies are only made about thin and pretty people. There’s also the fact that Eddie was nowhere near as successful as they made out in the end: they cut that Eddie came last on both of his events, and the tragic way his story continued, with Eddie never qualifying for another Games.
Portraying Eddie as the paint-by-numbers hero that appears on the screen does a disservice to the man, and it does a disservice to his audience because of its perpetuation of a tired message, repeated like a broken record by the film industry. Hollywood is the worst culprit, promising you can achieve literally whatever you want if you just believe hard enough. Forget the needed lifetime of practice, forget natural ability. All that’s required is self-confidence and a good heart. This, while lovely, is absolute garbage. But I bet the same people who complain about ‘the generation that wants everything without working for it’ will be gushing over this film as ‘a stirring tale of Great British pluck’, without considering the link between the films which send this kind of message and the audience, who begin to believe it.
It’s also a rewriting of history to repaint Eddie as a heroic figure. He was not a hero. He was a man desperate to perform in the Olympics – and without any lifelong passion for his chosen sport. He succeeded in doing so – once – because of a loophole in a decades-old selection policy which was patched quickly afterwards. He is a novelty, a comic figure. This confusion was best exemplified in the cinema when Eddie’s first crash happened: half the audience gasped, the other half chuckled. In what is meant to be the character-making speech just before the film’s climax, Eddie says “I didn’t come here to be a laughing stock, and I’m definitely not leaving here as one”. But he was a laughing stock: untrained, under-prepared and only competing on a technicality. And perhaps, in spite of what this film may tell you, that is all he ever could hope to be.