Arnold review: Netflix docuseries explores the action star's enduring appeal

ByDevansh Sharma
Jun 09, 2023 05:02 PM IST

Arnold review: Hollywood star Arnold Schwarzenegger lets his vulnerable, self-critical side shine through in this Netflix series.

There's something immensely liberating to see a big man confess to his vulnerability. Arnold Schwarzenegger is that very gentle giant who admits to many such moments of insecurity in a new three-part Netflix docuseries. (Also read: Miss Americana review)

Arnold review: Netflix docuseries explains why Schwarzenegger keeps striking back.
Arnold review: Netflix docuseries explains why Schwarzenegger keeps striking back.

Schwarzenegger is the only personality who's enjoyed massive success in three completely different fields: bodybuilding, acting and politics. Naturally, the three parts of the docuseries focus on a career phase each. But it's the most interesting to see how the three facets of his personality inform each other. Equally fascinating is how he looks at every stage of his life through the lens of scrutiny, instead of glorification.

Growing up

Schwarzenegger, born in Austria, like all the self-made people out there, is a product of hereditary discipline and personal ambition. He learnt obsession from his mother, a tireless cleanliness freak, and persistence from his father, who always instilled in him and his brother a sense of perennial competition. They had to do pushups in order to earn breakfast and were made to complete in something as trivial as picking the best flowers on Mother's Day.

But in signature vulnerable fashion, he claimed that the same competitive, demanding environment at home that turned him into a global sensation, made his brother resort to compulsive drinking. He eventually died in a drunken driving car crash. Through this parallel, Schwarzenegger insisted that pressure doesn't extract the best out of everyone. On the contrary, it takes a toll on many.

American Dream

A lightening straight from Hollywood struck Schwarzenegger and lured him to the US. He saw a poster of Reg Park as Hercules and was enamoured by the sheer craft that bodybuilding entailed. He saw it as the art of sculpting - command over poise, beauty and stance.

While he wasn't all brawn and no brains, it didn't really fetch him tempting offers from Hollywood. He recalled how he pursued his dream role of Hercules relentlessly, but his film Hercules in New York (1969) bombed without trace at the box office. It took much more than sweating it in the gym to break out as a star: it took talent and patience.

Hollywood inroads

Schwarzenegger, a self-proclaimed juggernaut, had to wait for years to find a tailor-made role for him. He found that in Stay Hungry (1976), a film on a bodybuilder's journey, and Pumping Iron (1977), a documentary on bodybuilders.

Once he found a foot in the door, he soon collaborated with James Cameron on his breakthrough, The Terminator (1984), and never looked back. A decade after being written off because Hollywood was smiling on much smaller men like Dustin Hoffman (The Graduate) and Robert DeNiro (Taxi Driver), Schwarzenegger found a match in Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) in the 1980s, ushering in the era of the action star through a healthy yet relentless upmanship.

But Schwarzenegger also confessed candidly in the docuseries that once he was diagnosed with a heart valve disease and had to undergo life-threatening surgeries, he was written off by Hollywood. He was no longer the invincible star IRL he claimed to be on screen.

Politics who?

Schwarzenegger was always vocal about sociopolitical issues, but it wasn't until his marriage with Maria Shriver, a descendant of the prestigious Kennedy family, that he started taking that political slant seriously.

The unadulterated obsession and acute discipline aside, what really helped Schwarzenegger's campaign was his refreshingly rebellious brand.

He never shied away from flaunting his favourite Cuban cigarettes (that he often smoked on screen), unlike many other contemporaries. When he was in office, as the California Governor, he even started a smoking room where he invited politicians to spend quality time over cigars. It was his way to make American politics more transparent and relatable.

A still from Arnold.
A still from Arnold.

Similarly, his historic dialogue "I'll be back" from the Terminator franchise became a campaign promise. When he was elected for the second term, he famously said, "I love doing sequels."

But in the docuseries, Schwarzenegger, reluctantly, also spoke about how his reign as a political leader made things difficult at home. The media dug into his clandestine affair from the 1990s with a household staff, which led to him fathering another child. This revelation eventually led to his separation from wife, and Schwarzenegger wisely submitted that his personal failures would be remembered as widely as his professional achievements.

Last month, at 75, Schwarzenegger made his streaming debut with Fubar, an action show on Netflix. His command over his physique underlines the popular dialogue from Terminator: Dark Fate (2019), "I'm old, not obsolete." But in the same show, he addresses the rift with his onscreen estranged daughter and admits how he hasn't been the best father owing to his demanding profession of a spy. It's this dichotomy, of masculinity and vulnerability, that continues to make Arnold Schwarzenegger exceedingly relevant today.

The docuseries has multiple shots of the 75-year-old man working out alone in his private gym. He's as persistent and dedicated as he's lonely and desperate. And that explains his endless appeal, as the kind of action star, the kind of politician we want to see today.

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