Arnold Review | All Pumped Up With Nowhere to Go

by Andrew Parker

Although it extends across three hour long entries, the documentary miniseries Arnold offers up a softball and incomplete picture of a person who continues to have a profound impact on the state of politics and entertainment in America. Sticking to the most basic of facts, director Lesley Chilcott’s profile of Austrian bodybuilder turned Hollywood megastar turned California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger never takes a deep enough dive into his career or personality to warrant such a grand presentation. As a straightforward, no frills profile, Arnold is okay and overlong, but anyone looking for a great deal of emotion or anecdotes that aren’t already common knowledge will be disappointed.

The first instalment of Arnold, titled Athlete, is the most interesting and insightful, looking back at Schwarzenegger’s early career as a Mr. World, Mr. Universe, and Mr. Olympia winning bodybuilder. The second hour, titled Actor, documents Schwarzenegger’s successful leap from bodybuilding to action film stardom. Arnold wraps up with a final hour examining Schwarzenegger’s political career, titled American, beginning with his victory in a 2003 recall election to become governor of the state of California. Chilcott’s structure is solid and nicely compartmentalized on a surface level, but each of the hour long entries feels like snippets of a larger and more interesting picture driven almost exclusively by the documentary’s subject.

Often interviewed at his home – which Schwarzenegger lovingly describes as a sort of cross between Austrian homeliness and American maximalism – while puffing on a stogie, Chilcott’s subject is gregarious and forthcoming with their time, if nothing else. Arnold has always proven himself to be a great storyteller, something further evidenced in even the earliest archival footage here, back when Schwarzenegger could barely speak a word of English. He’s a showman, and sometimes an enthusiastic one. As an actor, Arnold has the ability to enthral viewers with stories that play to his larger than life image, which he’s quick to interject is largely bullshit. As a politician, Arnold knows when he has to get serious with his tone, capable of reigning in his own persona and bringing things back down to earth. It’s easy to see why he became a superstar, with his intelligence, charisma, and natural media savvy vastly outshining his chops as a dramatic actor. He gives off the vibe of an everyman crossed with a Sherman tank.

Whenever Schwarzenegger is allowed to speak freely, Arnold is at its best, but curiously, it’s his own strengths that become weaknesses. He’s not big at showing emotion or large amounts of introspection. He’s clearly thought about his successes and failures over the years, but to hear him relive those experiences in Arnold, one wonders how much stock he puts into the past. That’s a problem when Chilcott (the most recent Helter Skelter) wants to tint her project through a somewhat nostalgic lens in all three parts. Schwarzenegger never comes across as a nostalgic kind of person who want to live in the past. If anything, he’s constantly reaffirming his stance as someone who prefers looking ahead to the future.

The first hour focusing on his upbringing in the small town of Thal and the ways he fell in love with bodybuilding is far and away the most interesting instalment because Arnold is at his most animated and relaying a story that hasn’t been previously told. There’s little sentimentality to be found in that hour (a byproduct of his stern ex-military policeman father), but there’s a great deal of wonder in his voice as he recalls getting a chance to train with and compete against a lot of his childhood idols. It’s also the entry of the series that does the finest job of illustrating Schwarzenegger’s impeccable and intense work ethic (which extends to making his first million through buying real estate before even becoming an actor), a key component of his personality and success.

Arnold will be the biggest disappointment, however, to those who want to hear him dish about his time atop the Hollywood A-list. For the second hour, Chilcott catches her subject on autopilot, regurgitating facts about his acting career that are already well known, without ever stopping to focus on anything in particular. Unless viewers want to hear about True Lies, Twins, or anything with Terminator in the title, there’s not much specificity to be found in this section. It doesn’t feel like a well rounded volume in a look at his career, and is treated like a perfunctory stopgap between the things Schwarzenegger would much rather be talking about. For someone who made as many fascinating blockbusters, cult favourites, and earth quaking duds as Schwarzenegger did, treating them all like one amorphous blob that just blended together over a couple of decades isn’t particularly interesting. The entire middle hour takes a fascinating point in its subjects career – arguably the biggest part of it – and reduces it to something bland and thin.

Interest picks up again in the final episode where Schwarzenegger – who was technically a member of the Kennedy family through his marriage to ex-wife Maria Shriver – talks about what he learned as the elected leader of one of America’s biggest and most fraught states. In this section, Schwarzenegger proves to be someone who enjoys growth and learning from their mistakes. One of the few times in Arnold when punches aren’t being pulled comes from the examination of his early days in office, when Schwarzenegger’s approval ratings were tanking. He turned things around by breaking with conservative tradition and embracing the ideas of others outside his inner circle. There are so few stories of politicians changing their stripes that the final hour of Chilcott’s documentary strikes as refreshing.

But by the time Arnold reaches its final hour, the limitations of Chilcott’s overly fawning approach become more apparent. While the series is willing to probe into some of Schwarzenegger’s past comments, it’s all brushed aside like it was a bunch of bravado that never meant anything in the first place. When confronted about the groping allegations that plagued his political campaign, he admits to past wrongdoing, and things are pretty much just left at that. There’s no standing up to Arnold here, not even from the series’ carefully curated selection of supplementary interview subjects. People like James Cameron, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis, and the late Ivan Reitman (in what might’ve been one of his final ever interviews) have mostly exceptional things to say about working alongside Schwarzenegger, but don’t expect anything from his accusers or ex-wife Maria Shriver, and very little from some of his children. There are clearly a lot of holes in Arnold that Chilcott and the film’s subject would really prefer to race over without acknowledging, and that robs the series of a great deal of substance and insight. The only real conflict to be found here comes in the form of Sylvester Stallone, who speaks freely about his professional rivalry with Schwarzenegger, but it all seems like water under the bridge at this point, so even that fails to ignite some sort of complimentary spark.

But that glossing over extends to the little details, too. Outside of the first hour where viewers get to know Schwarzenegger better as a human being, the rest of Arnold is middling idol worship. His career is so fascinating and varied that three rigidly controller and largely ego driven hours feels reductive and incomplete. Schwarzenegger’s life is one of the greatest American success stories of all time, but Chilcott and her subject treat it like just another day at the office. There’s something here, but Arnold is missing the details that would make it truly impactful.

Arnold is streaming on Netflix starting Wednesday, June 7, 2023.

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