The 1988 Winter Olympics brought us not only one, but two heart-warming stories of sporting heroism by unconventional outsiders. The story of the Jamaican Bobsleigh Team was told promptly in the wonderful 1993 Disney picture Cool Runnings, but we’ve had to wait nearly 30 years to see the other tale, that of Eddie the Eagle, on the silver screen.
Part of the challenge is that the dramatic conventions of such films force their screen renderings to be quite similar. In reality the situations were somewhat different. Until the wheels (or at least the runners) literally came off the Jamaicans had built up a real prospect of a good place, powered by a team three of whom could run 100m in less than 10s. Eddie Edwards had his utter determination to take part, and had built up a decent competition record on skis, but was only ever likely to come last. The new film acknowledges this, but otherwise echoes the earlier one in many ways, with the same drunk and disgraced former athlete as coach, the condescending officials who see the outsiders as challenging the dignity of their sport, parents who are split on whether to support their sons or not, fellow athletes who are initially rude but who come to respect the outsiders’ determination, and so on.
When two films, by co-incidence , tackle the same subject at the same time it’s inevitable that they are compared and one (Deep Impact, Olympus Has Fallen) falls into the shadow of the other (Armageddon, White House Down). While I get the impression that the makers of the new film didn’t want to wait nearly a generation to make it, maybe by doing so they have both reduced this effect (except from old codgers like yours truly), and will perpetuate these great sporting tales into a new audience who might not otherwise have been aware of them.
Comparisons and conventions aside, Eddie the Eagle is an excellent film. It captures both the flights and thumps of ski jumping, and modern filming techniques allow you to be there on the skis with the jumpers. However it excels in telling the human stories, with Edward’s determination against the odds beautifully portrayed, as is the growing admiration of those who both supported and opposed him. I have two abiding memories of the Calgary Olympics. One is of four black guys carrying their broken bobsleigh over the finish line, and the other is of an interview about Eddie with the slightly cold and aloof Finnish ski-jumping champion Matti Nykänen who the reporter was expecting to be rude and dismissive. Instead the young Finn was warm and supportive of Edward’s right to be there, and pretty much put the seal of approval on his attempt at the 90m hill. In the film that same support is portrayed in an elevator conversation between the two men, and brought my memories flooding back.
The film is also very funny, and that triggered another personal element. We went to see it yesterday in Guildford, and a large extended family had clearly block-booked the central seats next to ourselves. I noticed that when the same writer’s name was shown twice in the credits, there was a little Mexican wave by the kids, and thought "oh, that Simon Kelton must have someone in", but then sat down to enjoy the film and laughed as loud as I normally do when so entertained. Afterwards, one of the family group came up to me and asked "was it you who was laughing so loudly?" I confirmed that it was, and he introduced himself as the writer. It’s not often I can personally express my thanks to an entertainer, and it was great on this occasion to get the chance.
It’s a good film. Go and see it. And afterwards, try and catch up with Cool Runnings.