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‘Arnold’ Review: Schwarzenegger Documentary Is Incomplete

In the growing industry of celebrity documentaries, everything can feel tightly managed to the point of being suffocatingly safe. This isn’t to say directors can’t carve out something illuminating about their subjects, but watching these types of works can be most interesting in how they bring the lines that are cautiously toed into focus. In Lesley Chilcott’s Arnold, the new Netflix documentary about the bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, there’s much that seems content to operate within the confines rather than push up against them. Depth is sacrificed at the altar of access, with personal details and interviews with the man himself driving the documentary in a way that, while entertaining when looking through his movies, remains incomplete as a whole.


Split into three parts, one for each reinvention of Schwarzenegger’s life, Arnold comes across as more of a calculated brand management strategy than a truly incisive documentary. Considering the streamer hosts a mixed bag of a new series starring him as well, it is hard not to see the two as being closely linked in their aims. Although the documentary thankfully never falls into being an outright promotion for the series or the streaming platform itself, there is still the persistent sense that Schwarzenegger is trying to sell us something: himself. For every potentially complicated contradiction it gestures at exploring in the man behind the movies, there are many more moments where it reveals itself to be a hagiography largely swept up in the self-serving mythology of the star. This isn’t something that Arnold really hides from us, nor is it unexpected or uninteresting as a potentially unintentional study of what its subject cares about. As Schwarzenegger says in one of his many unbroken interviews that serve almost as monologues for his own mythos, “You have to sell everything. No matter what you do in life, you have to sell it.” This becomes a thesis of sorts for the documentary, but whether one buys what Schwarzenegger is selling is another thing entirely.

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‘Arnold’ Is About Schwarzenegger’s Image More Than Anything

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Arnold.
Image via Netflix

Even though he’s considered one of the most recognizable action stars of all time, and one who has left an enduring mark on movies, Arnold sees Schwarzenegger acting like he still has something to prove. It makes for a fascinating artifact that is most revealing in a way it may not fully intend to be. With the actor now in his seventies, there is something poignant in hearing how he reflects on his legacy. When in conversation with him openly talking about how his childhood molded him, for what he insists was for the better while making brief acknowledgments about its challenges, we come to understand the man through both this and some of Arnold‘s omissions. There is a surprising lack of Schwarzenegger discussing his own feelings or emotions independent of his public perception. Instead, he usually looks at his value through how others, be it audiences or critics, evaluated him. The repeated reminders of his movie’s box office results, where he often sets records that serve as high points (with some flops serving as low points), make clear that this is a man who measures his value in dollars. His financial draw, more than his talents as an actor, is what motivates him and still seems to weigh on him.

Arnold doesn’t dwell on these disappointments, keeping things mostly light as it always zips along to his next success, but the way Schwarzenegger talks about his jealousy of those like Sylvester Stallone, who makes a couple of good-natured appearances himself, speaks volumes. The idea of them being in competition with each other, with each trying to one-up the other with bigger weapons and spectacle in their respective movies, is played as humorous while also getting to what it is that drives its subject. Schwarzenegger always has to have something to achieve, and he is not content to merely just enjoy himself for what he has done. In one particularly revealing scene, after saying that he is not an expert in psychology, he adds that when he had a goal he had less time to think about whether he was depressed, felt sorry for himself, or had become, in his words, a victim. Although this rather toxic and almost confessional throwaway is soon moved past, it feels like we are getting a hint of how the man coped with his own pain in that he would just basically ignore it. It is one of those fleeting instances where Schwarzenegger the performer steps aside to give a small hint of the man who threw himself into external pursuits to avoid confronting his internal tumult.

Schwarzenegger then discusses how almost everything in his life has come from him bullshitting his way through it, which feels potentially pointed but isn’t being completely delved into. While primarily meant to capture the unique charisma that made him into the globally recognizable figure that could lead a movie (with this part of the documentary proving to be the most entertaining), it opens the door to a deeper portrait that it only tentatively takes steps towards. There was no way Arnold was ever going to be a comprehensive vision on the level of someone like Ken Burns, but this is still disappointing. When the final part then shifts into covering some of Schwarzenegger’s more high-profile flaws, such as the multiple accusations of him groping women reported on by the Los Angeles Times when he was running for governor, there is a tension that it can’t really resolve. It does rightly include perspective from reporter Carla Hall, who explains both the process and timing of their investigation, but the documentary also slips in a flimsy interjection from another talking head who half-heartedly maligns the way she sought comment. In a more comprehensive documentary, Hall would get a chance to respond so that the truth of what really happened could be delved into. Instead, the burdens of smoothing down Schwarzenegger’s story into an uplifting one means sidestepping thornier questions. Arnold doesn’t ignore all of them, which would be too much of an oversight, but it doesn’t sit with them either.

‘Arnold’ Is an Incomplete Exploration of Schwarzenegger’s Life

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Arnold.
Image via Netflix

There comes a point where Arnold pulls back from truly looking at the man and his life to mostly hit all the highlights. This makes sense in terms of his movies as that speaks to the presence he had on screen, which is the strongest part of the documentary with the most fascinating nuggets of information that could honestly be watched on its own without the first or third parts, but the closing shifts towards being unnecessarily self-aggrandizing. When one interviewee says that “the world needs him,” referring to Schwarzenegger’s concern about the existential threats of climate change and a resurgent fascism that is taking hold, it pushes Arnold‘s narrative just a bit too far. The actor is right to care about these things and his voice does indeed carry weight, but the lack of humility in this statement makes clear that the documentary is mostly interested in bolstering his image over the issues themselves. The complexity of his competing ideas, superficially praising Ronald Reagan in one breath to expressing support for more progressive issues in the next, is ripe for dissection that never happens.

Schwarzenegger is a man that clearly contains multitudes, but we largely only get a look into the ones he wants us to see. Some details slip through regardless, but the documentary is too finely controlled and its subject is still too concerned about his image to really grapple with them. Though Chilcott is credited as director, the one really dictating where it all goes and what it discusses remains Schwarzenegger himself. He is almost always the one with his hands firmly on the wheel of Arnold, steering it into a work that is occasionally revealing yet too carefully sculpted to be fully transcendent.

Rating: C+

Arnold premieres on Netflix on June 7.

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