Somewhere I still have the faded green ribbon from the 1967 track and field day at Florence L. Walther Elementary School: “Fifth place, 100-yard dash, Lawrence Toppman.” Though I looked like a bowling ball with feet and could have been outrun by an ambitious sloth, I grasped a key concept: If five ribbons are given, and only five people sign up for an event....
So I was the perfect target audience for “Eddie the Eagle,” a film about the chap who realized Great Britain wasn’t entering a ski jumper in the 1988 Winter Olympics. In fact, it had never had a ski jumper for six decades. So if he managed to qualify, he would automatically become the greatest British ski jumper alive.
This warmhearted, conventional and irresistible dramedy makes Eddie Edwards (Taron Egerton) a dreamer from childhood, a guy more resolute than conniving. You admire his cleverness because it’s accompanied by a drive to compete, not a lust for celebrity.
Little Eddie decides to join the ranks of Olympic heroes after reading a book about them. His parents (Jo Hartley and Keith Allen) assume he’ll realize his lack of athletic prowess and join Dad in the plastering business, but dogged Eddie ends up at a training camp in Germany to tackle the big runs. (The tallest, a 90-meter tower, is about the size of a 25-story building.)
The movie has so many traditional elements that your eyes may roll. Eddie’s reluctant coach (Hugh Jackman), former U.S. champion Bronson Peary, walked away from his team because of egomania and has become an alcoholic. The British Olympic committee puts one big obstacle in Eddie’s way, fearing embarrassment, and he surmounts it on his final try. As he waits to jump in the Olympics, we hear voices of the naysayers from his past.
Yet the script by Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton has novel touches. Nobody finds Eddie a girlfriend, nor does he vanquish the sneering Scandinavians who mock him on the tour. The coach puts away his bottle – “for now,” he says, expecting to pick it back up – and gives Eddie sound advice his protegé refuses to take.
Egerton, who broke out as the suavely tough hero of “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” understands his role perfectly. He wears a look of stubborn worry tempered with unquenchable optimism, because he’s dead sure that finishing dead last would be a triumph. The movie doesn’t sentimentalize his relationship with Peary (an invented character), and Egerton and Jackman have comic charisma.
The ending leaves us hanging, suggesting a potentially glorious future. The real Edwards went on to set the stunt jumping world record (10 cars/six buses), then appeared on reality TV shows – he won the celebrity diving program “Splash” in 2013 – and in commercials. His unanticipated fame has extended almost three decades after his shining moment.
He bears out the philosophy of Baron de Coubertin, architect of the modern Olympics in 1896: “The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” People say things like that all the time, but how many of us believe them? Eddie Edwards did, which is why “Eddie the Eagle” works so well.
‘Eddie the Eagle’
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Jo Hartley, Keith Allen.
Director: Dexter Fletcher.
Length: 105 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 (some suggestive material, partial nudity and smoking).