Every great movie star is a metaphor for their era. The scuzziness of the 1970s bled into Robert De Niro’s collaborations with Martin Scorsese. The callow, End of History optimism of the 1990s was reflected in the leery smile that Leonardo DiCaprio sported early in his career. In the 1980s, meanwhile, no star was bigger than Arnold Schwarzenegger, his brawn and ambition tacking to the same tailwinds powering Ronald Reagan’s turbocharged capitalism.
Schwarzenegger’s movies have weathered the decades better than Reagan’s trickle-down economics. And the actor, now 75, makes for an agreeable company across the three hours of documentary series Arnold (Netflix, streaming from today). But although he’s great fun to be around, there is also a feeling of hearing only some of the story, as Lesley Chilcott, its director, focuses on the myth of Schwarzenegger as the ultimate action hero.
She gives Schwarzenegger free rein to hold forth on his belief in manifest destiny and the drive that led him from small-town Austria to the summit of Hollywood. And from there to the highest tier of Californian politics, when he was elected governor.
What Arnold doesn’t do, however, is peel back the layers and deliver a deeper psychological profile of the bodybuilder-turned-actor. What drew him, a poor kid from the ends of the earth, to become a muscle man in the first place? And why was he so determined to succeed as an actor when he had already become a millionaire in California thanks to his talent for buying and selling property?
Some of this is touched on when Schwarzenegger discusses his complicated relationship with his father. This leads on to the drunk-driving death of his brother, who turned to alcohol to cope with the PTSD triggered by their violent upbringing, whereas Schwarzenegger found salvation in pumping iron.
There is also a sense of not asking the tough questions when the film comes around to groping accusations against the actor during his run for governor in 2003. Multiple women came forward accusing Schwarzenegger of groping them. To his credit, the star refuses to make excuses for his bad behaviour. “Forget all the excuses, it was wrong,” he says.
He also apologises for the hurt he caused to his wife, Maria Shriver, when he fathered a child with his housekeeper, Mildred Baena. He adds that the subject is difficult to discuss because it reopens old wounds. Fair enough, but isn’t reopening wounds part of a documentarian’s job?
By restricting itself to the superficialities of Schwarzenegger’s brilliant career, Arnold ultimately rates as a missed opportunity
Chilcott backs off. She instead shows us Schwarzenegger playing with his toys. These include a tank and a six-wheeled truck he drives around his property in California.
The three episodes function best as a celebration of Schwarzenegger’s life in cinema. And what a life it has been. It started, in earnest, with the fantastic Conan the Barbarian. From there we move on to action classics such as Commando, Predator, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
As a movie star, he deserves his victory lap. It’s just a shame there isn’t more to this documentary. By restricting itself to the superficialities of Schwarzenegger’s brilliant career, Arnold ultimately rates as a missed opportunity.