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The Convenient Omissions in Arnold

The Netflix documentary about Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t know quite what to do with his disturbing rise in politics.

Courtesy of Netflix

Even knowing all the worst things about him—that at least 15 women have accused him of groping them; that he embarrassed his family and destroyed his marriage by secretly fathering a child with his housekeeper; that he popularized the environmentally ruinous Hummer; that he praised Hitler’s oratory and befriended Nazi war criminal Kurt Waldheim; or just that he’s a pro-business Republican in the tradition of his heroes Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush—it’s frustratingly hard not to like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Maybe you like him because you’re passionate about bodybuilding, the sport he dominated and almost single-handedly mainstreamed in the 1970s; or because 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a universally acknowledged classic that still comes up in debates over artificial intelligence; or because in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, the former governor of California comes across as one of the handful of sane Republican elder statesmen preaching moderation.

The new Netflix docuseries Arnold is a lot like its subject: endearing and watchable but ultimately missing something. Directed by Lesley Chilcott, who also worked on the charter school propaganda film Waiting for “Superman” and Al Gore’s award-winning climate jeremiad An Inconvenient Truth, and produced with Schwarzenegger’s full cooperation, Arnold shows glimpses throughout of a braver series someone might have made, albeit without the same degree of access to the man himself. How one feels about Arnold likely hinges on how one feels about Arnold. After watching all three hour-long episodes, I felt even more ambivalent about both.

Bodybuilding, Hollywood, and politics—the episodes are arranged chronologically, each focusing on a different industry where Schwarzenegger willed himself to power. Along the way, we get the familiar outlines of his remarkable biography. Schwarzenegger was born in 1947 in the provincial Austrian village of Thal, the younger son of Gustav Schwarzenegger, a local police chief who had spent most of the previous decade as an enthusiastic Nazi. Though Austria was spared the Stalinist dystopia that much of Central Europe endured after World War II, towns like Thal experienced a quieter and more intimate misery. Men like Gustav returned home from the eastern front traumatized by some of the bloodiest fighting in human history, guilt-ridden over the atrocities they’d committed, and humiliated by the Third Reich’s total defeat—and they often took this out on their families. Gustav could be a loving father one moment and a drunken domestic abuser the next, and in this he wasn’t very different from the other dads in the neighborhood.

Many of Schwarzenegger’s childhood friends were nonetheless content to live out their days in Thal, surrounded by rural Alpine beauty and a predictable pace of life. Schwarzenegger had bigger dreams; through international bodybuilding competitions, he made his way beyond Austria and eventually to Los Angeles, cutting off contact with his family for a number of years. His older brother Meinhard, whom he recalls as more sensitive and artistic than himself, died in a drunk-driving accident in 1971, and his father died of a stroke a year later; Schwarzenegger attended neither of their funerals.

Much of this is recounted firsthand by a 75-year-old Schwarzenegger in an interview at his sprawling mountain retreat in Sun Valley, Idaho, which he describes as representing American grandiosity in an Austrian-esque landscape—an unsubtle metaphor for himself. Schwarzenegger is constantly making little comments like this to assure us that he’s aware of how ridiculous he is. Several times throughout the series, Schwarzenegger uses the term “schmäh,” an Austrian-German idiom he translates as “bullshit,” to describe his efforts at self-promotion at each stage of his career. The famous scene in his breakout 1977 bodybuilding documentary, Pumping Iron, where he compares the titular activity to “having sex with a woman and coming”? That was schmäh, he now says. Driving a Hummer and smoking a cigar to look like a “stud”: schmäh. Schmäh is how a guy with a thick accent, a superhuman physique, and no money or connections hustled his way to becoming one of the biggest stars in the world. Schmäh is using steroids to achieve that superhuman physique—everyone was doing it, apparently. Schmäh explains his morbid Reagan-era arms race with Sylvester Stallone, his rival for ultimate cinematic action hero—in hindsight, they both say, each of them was trying to outdo the other’s previous body count in blockbuster after blockbuster. Schmäh is telling Special Olympics founder Eunice Shriver, née Kennedy, that her daughter Maria has “a great ass” with enough brazen conviction to marry into America’s greatest political dynasty. Schmäh is an Austrian word for an American ethos, and no one is prouder to be an American than Schwarzenegger.

Indeed, “American” is the title of the third episode, the one covering Schwarzenegger’s political career. It’s a telling choice, because it casts Schwarzenegger’s governorship of the most populous state in the country less as a political project with specific material consequences and more as the capstone of a very ambitious immigrant’s career. Schwarzenegger talks about running for governor the same way he talks about becoming Mr. Universe or Conan the Barbarian: Everyone told him it couldn’t be done, but he had a vision of success and he followed through. At least some of the millions of Californians who voted for him were voting less for his conservative agenda—which crashed and burned in his first term before he salvaged his governorship by pivoting to the center and working with Democrats in Sacramento—than for the aspirations he embodied by treating politics as the ultimate vanity project.

Twenty years after he was elected in an unprecedented successful recall effort against a sitting Democratic governor, it’s hard not to see Schwarzenegger’s campaign as foreshadowing something more sinister. Though Trump is rarely mentioned in the series, Schwarzenegger has been a vocal critic of the former and perhaps future president, whom he succeeded as host of The Celebrity Apprentice and who is also a global icon from the 1980s, a larger-than-life character, a proud bullshitter, an alleged serial groper, and a Republican with shallow and flexible ideological convictions. Schwarzenegger is clearly aware of these parallels, which may be why he goes to pains to establish that unlike Trump, he is patriotic, positive, earnest, loves his five kids (including Joseph Baena, his son with his former housekeeper, who is now a 25-year-old bodybuilder and appears to have a good relationship with his father), contributes to philanthropy, and definitely does not approve of the January 6 insurrection. Not all celebrity politicians are equally bad, in other words.

Still, a better documentary would have taken a critical look at Schwarzenegger’s actual policy record, beyond acknowledging his groping scandal (he vaguely apologized when the story broke and now more definitively says, “Forget all the excuses, it was wrong,” while simultaneously treating it as a minor obstacle to power that voters shrugged off) and celebrating his willingness to reach across the aisle. That record includes a tough austerity budget in the wake of the 2008 recession, vetoing same-sex marriage (which he now supports) and single-payer health care, attacking unions, and a whole series of ethics violations—none of which Chilcott bothers to ask Schwarzenegger about. Instead we’re left with a vague sense that he brought Sacramento together, crusaded for the environment, and built things. Not that it really matters, since the most important thing he did was win twice and prove the doubters wrong.

A better documentary also would have found a few critical voices willing to go on record, besides the reporters at the Los Angeles Times who broke the groping scandal a few days before the election and who express a bit of surprise and disappointment that it didn’t derail Schwarzenegger. None of Schwarzenegger’s actual accusers were interviewed; nor was Maria Shriver, whom he mentions frequently and who appears in news clips, including one where she stood up for her husband and trashed the credibility of the women alleging he assaulted them. We don’t hear from any of his kids either. Besides Schwarzenegger himself, we mostly hear from childhood friends, bodybuilding friends, James Cameron, Linda Hamilton, Sylvester Stallone, Jamie Lee Curtis, and some former campaign advisers … all of whom are there to reinforce the banal point that Schwarzenegger is just a fun, charming, and exceptionally driven guy, as if that were ever in doubt.

At the very least, a better documentary might have brought in the voices of ordinary fans who don’t know the subject personally, to try to capture what it is about Schwarzenegger that resonates so widely across so many eras and contexts. Still, we learn enough about how he operates that we might venture our own guess.

Lately, Schwarzenegger has become an articulate critic of present-day fascism in both America and Russia, in both cases citing his father’s postwar brokenness as a cautionary tale. This is commendable, even moving. Yet it’s odd that Chilcott doesn’t engage with the strangely fascistic edge to Schwarzenegger’s public persona. In his youth he cited Hitler as a role model, which, following some expensive P.R. efforts with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, he learned to avoid doing (the docuseries skips over this entirely), but he’s still quoting Nietzsche and presenting his story as a kind of repeated triumph of the will. He started out by fetishizing the body; at the time he broke into Hollywood, he notes, the leading stars were little men like Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino, not muscular brutes like him. His most successful films almost all invite us to cheer for mass murderers. His political career looks tame in hindsight, but at the time he was trashing his Democratic opponents as “girly-men.” In one of the few pointed moments in the series, we see him praising Reagan followed by a clip of then-candidate Reagan promising to “make America great again.”

In short, one way to interpret Schwarzenegger is that he emerged from the ruins of the Third Reich and found success marketing himself as an Übermensch in jingoistic Reagan-era America. What has kept this from reaching its logical conclusion is a sense of humor and self-awareness that’s been on display for years. It was a canny choice for Schwarzenegger to star in Twins opposite Danny DeVito, and later in Junior and Jingle All the Way. While his comedies haven’t had the same enduring cultural imprint as the Terminator movies, they served to broaden his appeal by making him seem gentler and more human than he otherwise might have. So did marrying a Kennedy, which he casts as a decision driven more by love than by career considerations—but the fact that he even needs to clarify this suggests that branding might have played a role.

Branding, with a heaping dose of schmäh, has been Schwarzenegger’s signature move all along; he describes his job as an actor as having been 50 percent promotion. It’s appropriate that Arnold drops almost simultaneously on Netflix with a new scripted series starring Schwarzenegger, FUBAR, which has gotten terrible reviews and less press than Arnold. The docuseries feels like a career retrospective: It’s hard to imagine Schwarzenegger accomplishing anything more than he already has as a bodybuilder, an actor, or a politician or achieving comparable success in a fourth field. At this point, tending to his legacy is all he has left. He won’t be back.