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The fawning docuseries “Arnold” repackages Arnold Schwarzenegger’s already well-spun and streamlined biography. In three hour-long episodes devoted to his three major careers (bodybuilder, movie actor, and politician), Schwarzenegger provides negligible on-camera and voiceover-narrated commentary for movie clips, old and new talking head interviews, and self-congratulatory pep-talk commentary about his life, whose selectively remembered setbacks all set up him for some future, uncritically vaunted success.

The greatest pleasures in this overproduced miniseries will only please pre-existing fans, who have either already bought what Schwarzenegger’s now reselling—the unstoppable foreigner and people’s hero who overcame great adversity and achieved his wildest dreams—or just want to see the ex-Governator skittishly namedrop career lowlights like “The Villain” and “Batman and Robin” before and after new soundbites from Sylvester Stallone and James Cameron that make Schwarzenegger look better.

Schwarzenegger cocks a schticky eyebrow and puffs on evenly-lit cigars while admiring coffee table-sized books filled with high-resolution photos of himself from over the years. He has a PR-friendly anecdote or take for almost every moment in his public life, from the first time he met his ex-wife Maria Shriver (and complimented her ass to her mom Eunice) to his extramarital affair with Mildred Patricia Baena, and their son Joseph, both of whom he acknowledges in “Arnold.”

That stuff’s old news, or old enough that it can be used to embellish the Austrian Oak’s progress narrative, which only makes brief stops at major life events, like the death of his brother Meinhard or the box office failure of “Last Action Hero,” to shrug them off with platitudinous grace.

Arnold waves away the boisterous, bullying media persona that he and his people have pumped up for decades now, calling it so much “smäh,” a German word that he translates as “bullshit” (more like a jokey con job). It’s sort of amusing to see Schwarzenegger soften history to his whims, going so far as to sparingly acknowledge the L.A. Times and their critical investigative reporting, including some light talking head interviews with reporters Mark Z. Barabak and Carla Hall. He apologizes, again, for having “behaved badly.”

Schwarzenegger also dismisses antisemitism as “a horrible, loser ideology” in a clip from one of his recent social-media fireside chats. That line complements his recent claims about having only admired Hitler’s way with words, not his Nazi politics, which probably plays better if you either don’t remember or care about the part of that 1992 Spy Magazine article on Schwarzenegger where writer Charles Fleming confirms the rumor that Schwarzenegger used to gift people with records of Hitler’s speeches.

Schwarzenegger also says nothing about his abusive father Gustav’s voluntary service with the Nazis, presumably because he flicked away that association in his 2012 memoir, Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story. People only bring up the past when they want to smear you, Schwarzenegger suggests in footage from a 2003 press conference. (“You know, when you get into politics, they try to tear down your character, tear down everything you stand for.”) 

Your tolerance for this much smäh will depend on how much you like Schwarzenegger’s shimmering present-tense narrative. (About working on “End of Days” after undergoing heart surgery: “This is a new day. Let’s just move forward.”) Some will find the sheer length of “Arnold” to be punishing enough, while others will puzzle over a clueless narrative full of ersatz values, like when Schwarzenegger repeatedly conflates the worth and the box office performance of his various star vehicles (“Twins” was apparently great!), and then piles on pseudo-inspirational lines like, “Nietzsche was right, that that what does not kill you, will make you stronger." Schwarzenegger deploys that last paraphrase right after he talks about his brother’s death, calling Meinhard “delicate” and speculating that his dead sibling simply couldn’t take their father’s abuse.

There’s almost enough truth in all this smäh to make it seem credible, like when Schwarzenegger remembers wearing down doubters like “Conan the Barbarian” producer Dino De Laurentiis, who at first didn’t like Schwarzenegger’s accent. Never mind that Schwarzenegger insinuates more than he actually says, adds little to what he’s previously said, and often makes weird asides, like how America in the 1960s and 1970s “had problems” like "the Manson murders and protests against the Vietnam War," which suggests that “Hippies were rising up.”

The relentless march of time might still make you more susceptible to “Arnold” and its slick, consistently unbelievable revisionism. “We are the last dinosaurs,” Stallone says of himself and Schwarzenegger in episode three, which not only explains why Rocky’s in “Arnold,” but probably also why “Arnold” exists. Schwarzenegger continues to control his hyper-mediated destiny, and many people agree that his accomplishments as an American politician more than compensate for his earlier indiscretions. That was then, and this victory lap is for now until the foreseeable future.

On Netflix now. Whole series was screened for review.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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Arnold movie poster

Arnold (2023)

Rated NR

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