Canadian writer and feminist Sarah Hagi recently said a glorious thing: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” This kept ringing in my brain as I tolerated yet another celebration of an overconfident mediocre white man as charming, heroic, and worthy of emulation. In many ways, Eddie the Eagle is more insufferable than the whatever Triumph of the Ordinary Schmoe that opened last week at the local multiplex, and the one two weeks before that, because it is based on a true story that has been largely fictionalized to, theoretically, render it even more “inspirational” than it would otherwise have been. While stories about actual brilliant women who have done amazing things struggle to get made, and mostly don’t get made at all, a movie about a literal loser is considered uplifting and moving because, well, he tried, bless his little heart. Because he showed up.
Showing up is almost all Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards had to do in order to qualify as a ski jumper on the British Winter Olympics team for the 1988 Calgary Games, as depicted here. (And in spite of the extreme fictionalization, this bit does seem to be largely true.) Britain had never fielded a ski jumper before, and an overlooked loophole in the rules meant he only had to make a single appearance in competition — he didn’t even need to win or anything — for a spot on the team. Once at the Olympics, he set British Olympic ski-jumping records because no British ski jumper had ever competed before in the Olympics. (He set records by doing the bare minimum required, which is landing his jumps.) He came in dead last in both his events, but his clownish antics endeared him to the crowds in Calgary and watching on TV.
Now, the real Edwards appears to have been a better sportsman than this film lets on, and ski jumping is no joke. Here, though, he is a clumsy, unathletic oaf who doesn’t seem to have much innate talent on skis at all. When a member of Britain’s Olympic committee (Tim McInnerny: Spooks: The Greater Good, Doctor Who) informs him that he will “never be Olympic material,” it seems less like the classist villainy the film suggests it is — only rich boys from posh schools get to ski for Britain, you see — and more like a simple statement of fact: harsh, perhaps, but not unfair. And we have Taron Egerton playing Eddie like a sort of alpine Forrest Gump: his performance consists primarily of squinting a lot though enormous spectacles — Eddie is extremely farsighted — and clenching his jaw. Egerton has real range: he is unrecognizable here compared to his working-class spy in Kingsman: The Secret Service, and neither character looks anything like his soft WWI-era intellectual turned soldier in Testament of Youth. But his Eddie is little more than a gimmicky pantomime.
So, so far, we’ve got the film making Eddie less talented than he was, and facing more barriers than he did. What else can Eagle invent? How about a completely ahistorical coach in washed-up former Olympian ski-jumper Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman: Pan, Chappie), whom Eddie meets on the slopes of Austria where he goes to train? Peary is now an alcoholic employed as a snow-plough driver, an athlete who is the “biggest disappointment” of his former coach, totally fictional Warren Sharp (Christopher Walken: Jersey Boys, A Late Quartet). Will Peary get a chance to redeem himself through training Eddie? Of course he will! Men don’t just deserve a chance — they deserve a second chance! And sometimes even a third. It’s inspirational!
First-timer screenwriters Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton play wholly by the clichéd Hollywood rulebook. (As does director Dexter Fletcher. Will Van Halen’s “Jump” make an audio appearance? Of course it will.) Will Peary disparage expertise and professionalism, and insist that ski-jumping is as much art as sport? You betcha. A guy like Eddie doesn’t need talent: he just needs to Feel some nebulous It, and this will protect him from killing himself in a dangerous sport, and get him all the way to the Olympics. I stress again that this movie bears little resemblance to the real Eddie’s real story, and doesn’t seem to think it even needs to bother exploring just what it was about Eddie that made him so appealing to sports fans all over the world. Eddie the Eagle keeps insisting that Eddie is thoroughly charming, but that is a nebulous It I never felt. I felt only overweening schmaltz.