Arnold, Netflix, review: less muscle, more grilling is needed to uncover the real Schwarzenegger

Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1977 Cannes film festival - AFP
Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1977 Cannes film festival - AFP

Few are famous enough to be recognisable by their first name alone. Unless you’re fanatic about golfer Mr Palmer or novelist Mr Bennett, Arnold (Netflix) could only be about one man. The man formerly known as The Austrian Oak. The man Clive James memorably compared to “a brown condom full of walnuts”.

This hagiographic docuseries chronicles Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger’s remarkable story, from self-styled “shy little Austrian farm boy” to the Hollywood A-list and political elite. It’s an entertaining yarn but too stage-managed and soft-soaped to be a truly objective profile.

The three-parter, like its subject’s life, divides neatly into three acts. Episode one, titled “Athlete”, recounts his brutalised upbringing in post-war Austria, teen obsession with pumping iron and rise to bodybuilding dominance. As dumbbells clank and veins pop, our rippling hero always had one eye on escaping to pursue the American dream.

Schwarzenegger served as Governor of California for eight years - Frederick M Brown/Getty Images North America
Schwarzenegger served as Governor of California for eight years - Frederick M Brown/Getty Images North America

Next comes “Actor”, a clip-crammed hour charting Schwarzenegger’s path to celluloid stardom – one which wasn’t without potholes. See his struggles to temper his accent and a damning review that said his horse had more range. Never lacking confidence, he told director James Cameron that he didn’t want to be an actor, he wanted to be a star. In his imperial phase, he duly led a string of action hits, while proving versatile enough to handle comedy. Co-stars Danny DeVito, Linda Hamilton and Jamie Lee Curtis pay fond tribute. Less gushing is box office rival Sylvester Stallone: “We pushed each other. At times, I wanted to push him off a cliff”.

Completing the alliterative triptych is “American”, covering his marriage to JFK’s niece Maria Shriver and turbulent eight-year tenure as “Governator” of California. Inevitably, the pace sags during this instalment. Talking heads are less familiar (a certain David Cameron aside) and the US electoral system slightly baffling.

The man himself is admirably candid, whether it’s about his coldness (“I turned off my emotions”), failings as a husband (“I lived in denial”), fathering a child with his housemaid (“My mistake caused pain”) or groping scandals (“No excuses, it was wrong”). However, film-maker Lesley Chilcott’s muscular approach falters when it comes to the last of that trio, neglecting to press him hard enough.

Perhaps in return, Chilcott is granted intimate access. Cameras follow him revisiting his childhood home and caring for his menagerie of animals. He’s amusingly potty-mouthed and endearingly child-like. Work is “fun”, vehicles are “toys”, life is “play”. At 75, this slab of mature beef remains enviably active: biking up mountains, skiing down them and, naturally, still pumping iron.

It’s hard not to respect Schwarzenegger’s ferocious work ethic, bloody-minded will to win, hunger for the next challenge and determination to “turn obstacles into assets”. He’s currently making his TV debut in spy caper Fubar. Which, with uncanny serendipity, happens to be a Netflix stablemate. Consider this a glorified promotional video, albeit a handsomely made one. Hasta la vista indeed.

Arnold is released globally on Netflix from 7 June