Arnold Schwarzenegger’s life is, to put it bluntly, absurd. From a harsh upbringing in Thal, Austria in the aftermath of the Second World War to bodybuilding champion, from being the biggest movie star on the planet and to the Governor of California, his immigrant tale is an almost parodical example of the American Dream in action.
This American Dream, as, I suppose, is rather the point, makes Netflix’s latest documentary curiously compelling viewing. Told mostly through Schwarzenegger’s own words via extensive interviews, it is, for the most part, a likeable, if inessential, portrait of a man with a ruddy good yarn to spin. But an intriguing final episode shows Arnie unafraid to reflect on the less savoury chapters of his story, and it’s hard to leave Arnold without a newfound respect for its central character.
Told in three parts, each neatly categorizing the ridiculously varied facets of Arnie’s fifty-year career, from the get-go Arnold seems surprisingly open for a man very vocally of the ‘shut up and get on with it’ generation. His bodybuilding career, probably the most alien to most viewers, is the most difficult to engage with – it’s just hard to get across the appeal of training to have the rippliest body for a panel of judges.
It’s testament to Arnie’s sheer force of personality, then, that this first episode still makes for an interesting story. The quirky origin of the movie star-come-politician is all the more fascinating because we know, ultimately, what comes next. The chapter also ends with an out-of-sequence emotional gut-punch which does a great job of humanising a man the size of multiple regular people.
Part two, ‘Actor,’ is for many the real draw of the series, and does give a reasonably comprehensive overview of Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood career. His swerve into comedy does feel slightly less well-explored than his time toting machine guns, but if nothing else it is fascinating to see Arnold’s career shift through little more than the force of his own absurdly muscled will.
But it’s the patriotically titled episode ‘American’ which contains many of the juicy bits of Arnold’s story. Possessed of new meaning in a post-Trump era, Arnie’s political weaponization of his celebrity status is fascinating, sometimes alarming, to watch. If there is one criticism to be made, it does feel like the documentary never gets to the heart of why Schwarzenegger sought to head into politics. He had tremendous self-belief, to be sure, and he’s more than willing to spout his love of America at every opportunity. But as for his policy motivation or political philosophy, Arnold investigates these aspects only in the broadest of strokes.
Admirably, though, the latter half of the episode shows a subject willing to engage with the sins of his past. Featuring interviews with some of the L.A. Times journalists who broke the story of Schwarzenegger’s sexual misconduct allegations in 2003, one quote in particular seems to pierce the former Governor’s political underdog story more than any other: “Our story, rather than sinking him, made him surge at the end.”
Documentaries with extensive access like this always inspire a certain amount of suspicion. With the subject so readily involved in the show’s production, the likelihood of finding too many skeletons in the closet shrinks dramatically. Perhaps Arnold’s apparent emotional honesty is just another attempt to deflect from more difficult, probing questions into a man who, at the end of the day, was still a prominent US politician. Perhaps he deserves more scrutiny than you’d expect for a body-builder-turned-movie-star, and perhaps the strength of his own narrative distracts from that a little.
But at the end of the day, the tale of Arnie’s American Dream is too good, and its star too likeable, to pass up. From anyone else, his trials and accomplishments would seem outlandish. After spending three hours in his company, however, I get the sense that the real man might be just as larger than life as he appears on screen. He is, at the end of the day, just Arnold.
Arnold is streaming on Netflix from 7 June.