Tag Archives: Olympics

Fly Like an Eagle

‘Eddie the Eagle’ soars with inspiring tale of unlikely Olympic star

 

Eddie the Eagle

Starring Taron Egerton & Hugh Jackman

Directed by Dexter Fletcher

PG-13

Ever since he was a tot, Great Britain’s Michael “Eddie” Edwards dreamed of becoming an Olympic athlete. But the odds were always stacked against him.

Weight lifter, pole vaulter, discus thrower, hurdle jumper—he didn’t care. But no amount of backyard “training” made any difference. With congenitally wobbly knees bolstered by leg braces and thick eyeglasses to correct his terrible vision, young Eddie was no one’s idea of the Olympic ideal.

Though it takes a few—or more—liberties, Eddie the Eagle is based on the rousing real-life story of Edwards, who proved all the naysayers wrong to become an Olympic competitor, representing Great Britain in the 1988 Winter Olympics as a ski jumper. The movie traces his improbable journey, against the wishes of his working-class father, who urges him to settle into a proper trade, and England’s stuffy Olympic committee, which thwarts his every attempt to qualify for their team.

“Frankly,” one official dismissively tells teenage Eddie (Taron Edgerton), “you will never be Olympic material—goodbye.”

Eddie counters that curt farewell with his usual optimism, tenacity and pluck. Nothing is going to deter him. He sets off on his own to a Winter Olympics training facility, where he meets former ski champ Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), who reluctantly, eventually agrees to take Eddie under his wing.

As the stocky, bumbling, socially awkward Eddie, Edgerton is miles—or kilometers—away from his best-known former role as a stylish, slick super-spy in Kingsman. Jackman provides American-cowboy grit (all the way down to his boots) as a washed-up one-time “whiz kid” of the slopes and former Olympic star himself, who finds his own path to redemption through Eddie’s relentless ambition.

You probably haven’t heard of British actor-director Dexter Fletcher, whose films haven’t made much of a splash here in America. But he gives Eddie the Eagle a look, texture and sound perfect for its time and place, from Prince Charles and Lady Diana salt and pepper shakers on a kitchen table to the music, which combines pop and rock tunes of the era with instrumental synthesizer swooshes and swirls that would have been right at home driving the grooves of most any 1980s flick.

The movie shares its uplifting underdog spirit with Rocky, Rudy, Seabiscuit, Hoosiers and any number of other film sagas about individuals or teams that come from behind, power through roadblocks or are told they can’t, shouldn’t or won’t ever.

Hugh Jackman, left, poses with Eddie Edwards on the set of EDDIE THE EAGLE.

Hugh Jackman with the real-life Eddie Edwards on the set of ‘Eddie the Eagle’

When Eddie finally makes it to the Olympics, the crowd and the media love the naïve, effusively enthusiastic oddity who barely qualified for his team and who causes the announcers to declare, “The eagle has landed!” when he makes his climactic breathtaking, daredevil descent intact—and alive.

“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part,” we’re told, a quote from one of the games’ founders. And no one embodied that spirit like Eddie, whose inspiring, soaring tale of determination and personal triumph in the heartwarming Eddie the Eagle is a joy to behold as it takes flight.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Race Relations

Jesse Owens biopic reminds us of runner and historic 1936 Olympics

Race

Starring Stephan James & Jason Sudeikis

Directed by Stephen Hopkins

PG-13

No one had ever seen anyone run anything like Jesse Owens.

The sharecropper’s son from rural Alabama began burning up the track in junior high. By the early 1930s he was setting new championship records for Ohio State University, and in 1936 he wowed the world, where he brought home four gold medals—for track, relay race and long jump—from the Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.

Race tells Owens’ tale, and its simple-sounding title packs a double meaning—about his fleet feet as well as the spotlight on him as a black man in a historically loaded moment in time, where he faced discrimination, racism and the pressure to represent his country and his “people.”

In the movie’s opening sequence, as Owens (Stephan James) prepares to leave home for college, his mother touches a scar on his bare chest, the leftover of a childhood tumor that almost claimed his young life. “God spared you for a reason,” she tells him.

That reason, the movie leads us to believe, was to stand up for what’s right, to walk (and run) humbly with your God-given gifts—and to stick it to the Nazis.

In 1936, the movie shows us, the United States was conflicted about whether to participate in the Summer Olympics at all. Germany had won the bid to host the events five years earlier, two years before Nazi Germany came to power. Adolph Hitler’s goal of a blue-eyed, blonde-haired master “Ayran race” was already making nasty international ripples. When a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee pays a diplomatic visit to Berlin to negotiate terms of America’s participation, he sees signs outside the gargantuan Berlin Sports Center reading “No Jews or Dogs.”

German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten) keeps the camera rolling for the 1936 Olympics.

Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (Barnaby Metschurat), expecting his highly trained athletes to dominate, wants to use the Olympics as the ultimate world stage to showcase German grandeur. He’s hired his country’s acclaimed filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl (Carice von Houten), to document everything from start to finish.

Jason Sudeikis

Director Stephen Hopkins takes a mostly straightforward, meat-and-potatoes approach, especially to Owens’ life in Ohio, where we meet his wife-to-be Ruth (Shanice Banton) and his coach, Larry Synder (Saturday Night Live TV vet Jason Sudeikis, very strong in a non-comedic role). The movie doesn’t really come alive until Owens arrives in Berlin, specifically when he first steps onto the futuristic field and is awestruck by a hundred thousand cheering spectators, a massive dirigible overhead blocking out the sun, Nazi banners, athletes giving “Sieg Heil!” salutes—and the sight of dur füher in his boxed seat.

Owens was an enormous part of the history of the 1936 Olympics, where his achievements delivered a big black slap to Germany’s smug Nazi face about their so-called racial “superiority.” A subplot about his friendship with their top athlete, Lutz Long, represents the bridges—instead of barriers—of the Olympics’ loftiest ideal.

After the Olympics, the great Owens came home a winner and a new record-setter, but we’re showed how his four gold medals didn’t exactly change the world—for him or anyone else. As the movie and the Black History Month timing of its release reminds us, there was—and remains still—a much longer race to be run.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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All-American Hero

Angelina Jolie tells Louis Zamperini’s story of survival and inspiration

Unbroken 4

Unbroken

Starring Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara & Domnhall Gleeson

Directed by Angelina Jolie

PG-13

 

As far as real-life, all-American heroes go, they don’t get any red, white and bluer than Louis Zamperini, the U.S. Olympic runner, World War II bombardier and prisoner-of-war survivor whose amazing story was told in author Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling 2010 book, Unbroken.

Now Angelina Jolie, making her second theatrical outing behind the camera as a director, brings Hillenbrand’s book to the screen in a grandiose dramatization of Zamperini’s epic ordeal during the war, with flashbacks to his rascally boyhood in Torrence, Calif., his surprising success as a high-school track star, and his wide-eyed trip to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Unbroken 5The movie begins with a bang—quite literally—as we’re taken inside the belly of a B24 bomber, alongside Zamperini (Irish actor Jack O’Connell) and his crew mates as they crack jokes, then crack down and delivering their goods, fend off a fierce attack by Japanese Zeros and finally bring their badly damaged plane in for a very rough landing. A later mission sets up the dire circumstances that put Zamperini and two of his fellow crewmen (Domnhall Gleeson and Finn Whitrock) adrift in life rafts and finally into the hands of Japanese captors.

Zamperini (who died earlier in 2014, at age 97) would spend more than two years in Pacific prison and work camps, and the heart of the movie is the torment he received from a young, terrifying prison warden called “the Bird” (Japanese singer-songwriter Takamasa Ishihara, making his acting debut), whose soft, “feminine” appearance masked a grotesque sadism.

O’Connell gives a tremendous, star-making performance, transforming his entire physicality to depict the ravages of his ever-worsening conditions. Ishihara is galvanizing in an unforgettable “bad guy” role that hints of much more complexity and ambiguity than the script gives him rein to fully explore.

The movie looks fantastic, thanks to the camera work of award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brings a prestigious, pedigreed master’s touch to every scene: the danger—and the excitement—in the air; the desolation, desperation and drama of floating for weeks the ocean;Unbroken 3 the soul-sucking abominations of the prisons, where days and months seep into years.

The script—whose unlikely collaborators include Joel and Ethan Cohen, not typically known for such un-cynical, snark-free, drama—focuses a lot (perhaps too much) on suffering, agony and endurance, and not enough on just how, exactly, Zamperini came to circle back on the words of a sermon we watch him squirming through, as a boy: “Love thy enemy.”

One sequence depicts a weakened, starved and beaten “Louie” forced by the Bird to pick up a heavy wooden beam and hold it above his head for what the movie ticks off to feel like hours. Jolie presents it like a scene from The Passion of the Christ. That incident may very well have happened, but making Zamperini look like a saint—or more—seems like unnecessary sermonizing.

He wasn’t a saint, but he certainly was a great, inspiring man. And now his legacy includes a handsome movie monument to remind even more people of his service, his sacrifice and the incredible reserves of strength and resolve he used to keep his will, his faith, his courage and his call of duty to his country “unbroken.”

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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