The trailer for this film sucked me in. It looked like a warm, quirky British biopic in the vein of Billy Elliot or Chariots of Fire. It’s based on the true story of Michael ‘Eddie’ Edwards, the irrepressible everyman who managed to represent Great Britain in ski jumping at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, despite being a relative newcomer to the sport and not on a par with other competitors. Unfortunately this film has more in common with Cool Runnings, the largely fictionalised Disney film of the Jamaican bobsled team that competed at the same Olympics, than I hoped.Formulaic and fictional are two words that come to mind when watching Eddie the Eagle. It’s an interesting story, particularly for those old enough to remember Eddie at Calgary and the resulting media frenzy. We see Eddie’s optimism as a child, his determination to be seen as something special, to make his mark and be liked by people, despite his awkwardness, eccentricity and physical disability. His mum is his advocate, his dad the irascible voice of reason.
Eddie seems to stumble from one pursuit to another, his only goal to be an Olympian. We admire his unfailing optimism in a world seemingly set against him, from the ‘old boys’ of the British Olympic Authority to the other athletes who bully and exclude him. He is shown as being a bit gauche and clumsy, getting on the British downhill skiing team but being excluded from selection for the Olympics because he knocks over the rest of the team as they line up to impress sponsors. We understand that he is an underdog and deserves better.
I understand why ‘based on true events’ movies deviate from the truth. Life does not always have the pace and convenient narrative we expect in a movie and, after all, we have chosen to see a drama not a documentary. What interests me then, is what facts need to be changed to suit the audience and what this says about how we seek to be comforted or challenged.
There are some significant fictionalisations in Eddie’s story. The most obvious is Hugh Jackman’s character, reluctant coach Bronson Peary, who serves as the likeable handsome counterpoint to Eddie’s oddness. Less obvious is the alteration to Eddie’s character and experiences, designed I expect to increase our sympathy for him in a warm, fuzzy family-friendly way. What seems like a childhood disability was a period of recovery from a knee injury, he was a proficient downhill skier on the British team, narrowly missing selection for the 1984 Olympic team and not the clumsy wannabe shown in the film. Rather than being new to ski jumping, he was an experienced stuntman, jumping on skis over cars and buses. He trained for nearly two years in Lake Placid in the US, not one year in Garmisch, and chose ski jumping because it cost less and there were no other competitors to represent Britain. He slept in his car, ate out of bins and wore second-hand, ill-fitting gear because he had no money.
So do these differences matter in the enjoyable experience of watching a film? Probably not to most people, me included, if the story is engaging. I worry though that we are learning an inauthentic history that works on stereotypes and that this narrows our understanding of the world. In Eddie the Eagle, the only people who are really nice to Eddie are the coach and the only three women in the film. Every one else gives him a hard time. Authority is pompous. Competitors are bullies. Fathers are dream-killers.
The best part of this film for me is the ending. It builds genuine emotion and, although there are no surprises, there is great comfort in aligning ourselves with the crowds at the Olympics and at the airport in the final scene, those who recognise endeavour and reward it. Eddie is a hero because he is courageous and inspires such in other people. Whether this was true or not, it is a life-affirming message.
Bechdel test – fail