Writer/director Dan Cox' raison d'etre for making this documentary on Arnold Schwarzenegger's rise from actor to Governor of California becomes clear around the film's midpoint: it's where the film suddenly clicks, and delivers an effective chronology, outlining the disastrous missteps that had Schwarzenegger halt further policy shifts, take a breather, make a public apology, and change his position from Republican puppet into a more independent-minded Governor who refuted some of the key conservative ideals, and apparently became pro-choice, pro-green, and paid less lip service to some mighty corporate bullies. (At least that's what the Governator is tried to convey in his mea culpa.)
The film's message, if one can be gleaned from its midpoint, is simple: listen to the electorate, and start behaving like a responsible statesmen or you'll suffer the same vicious recall vote that yanked predecessor Gray Davis' from the Governor's chaise.
Cox' film is effective is setting up this lesson because Schwarzenegger's failures are perhaps less-known outside of California; after he won, national media attention kind of withered, but the local outlets had plenty of blunders to investigate, including Schwarzenegger's bluster about ‘closing the borders' from illegal immigrants (which he later recanted, and attributed to his language difficulties), and offering an electricity rebate (allegedly $1 per person) while taking matching funds from animal shelters who housed stray pets for about a week before giving them the magic sleepy needle.
Woven into this tale of hubris, arrogance, and narcissism is California 's recall vote (originally codified into law as an emergency measure to remove a despot through people power), and Schwarzenegger's amazing awareness of his allure as a media personality, which he's used to feed his need for power.
The film's midsection is a straightforward news documentary about arrogance, but because it isn't enough to fill a feature-length work, Cox tacks on a lengthy, meandering backstory about Schwarzenegger's childhood that feels like a tabloid piece on steroids: interviews with Austrian childhood friends and body building colleagues are reduced to overdubbed sound-bites; footage and stills are layered in rapid montages; and the pacing and editing of Alec Baldwin's narration further accelerates the backstory material as though Cox knew most of the facts – his domineering father and ties to the Nazi party, early bodybuilding years, becoming a top athlete, Arnie's womanizing, sexual escapades, youthful arrogance – are already familiar to most fans, so better to breeze through them and get to the meat of this visual essay on a media-savvy personality who eventually learned to think a little more on his own.
When the interviews are interpolated with social and political vignettes from comedians, critics, and associates no longer on the Schwarzenegger payroll, the doc maintains some credence, and provides some piquant irony; certainly in the campaign montages, it becomes clear a circus was unintentionally erected when the recall process began, with its minimal registry of complainants able to disrupt the reigning government and take former Governor Davis to task. Some footage of Bill Clinton's more civil critique of the recall campaign to a church congregation offers a contrasting style of tact and discretion, particularly when paired against some of the more nutty candidates for Governor, like a porn star, actor Gary Coleman, and some schmo running on his ‘openly corrupt behaviour' (whatever that's supposed to mean to voters).
But when claims of Arnie's womanizing and assault during the seventies are showcased (mostly using news footage), Cox' doc feels like a tabloid production; we understand it's all related to Schwarzenegger's character, but it's already appeared in other sources (including the infamous Pumping Iron bodybuilding documentary); so with the exception of a reporter posing a query about an old magazine article to Schwarzenegger during a pompous campaign stop, Cox should be moving on to more serious political fare.
That eventually happens when we get to the aforementioned midpoint, but Cox doesn't really have an ending for the film; Schwarzenegger's public contrition infers a new course for his administration, but it's too early to tell what's to come of it, so the doc just sputters to a close.
Buried within Running with Arnold is a good 20/20 news report of what California got for exercising the recall, and what happened during Schwarzenegger's first year in power, including his political realignment – but little else.
Cox' doc, however, is basically part of three films through which Schwarzenegger's career path is seen, if not foreshadowed:
1) In Pumping Iron (1977), Schwarzenegger's political goals, media savvy, and sexual power are raw and right up front. The commentary track by the filmmakers is frank, and one sees how Schwarzenegger learned to commodify himself as an internationally recognized figure during his years in bodybuilding. HBO's DVD is also fascinating because it was released prior to Schwarzenegger's election campaign, so the bonus interview segments are basically tailored explanations about all the taboo behaviour redolent in the film. There's also a bizarre text crawl where a narrator goes through Schwarzenegger's awards and accomplishments like self-serving p.r. vomitus.
2) Who Killed the Electric Car? A perfectly viable car for local use was planned as an answer to California 's demand for alternative fuel vehicles within a hard time-frame, and it was killed by big business, pockets of corruption, and a swing towards ethanol fuel. Gray Davis and Schwarzenegger are mere mentions, but the latter pops up as a leading public figure pushing ethanol fuel over electric – in his customized and ‘green-friendly' Hummer.
One could also add the 2005 TV drama See Arnold Run, which similarly covers Schwarzenegger's early years, his marriage to Maria Schriver, and his eventual win. Past and present storylines and POVs of a young and older Schwarzenegger and intercut, but the banal script is drawn from rudimentary news reports, and it's frankly painful to see the once great Jurgen Prochnow doing a swaggering, foam-padded caricature of Schwarzenegger (although he does utter Arnie's pronunciation of ‘Kah-lee-forneeyah' with exceptional enthusiasm).
Either way, Arnie's Adventures in Politics will eventually come to a close, and one can expect another wave of media scrutiny again.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan