By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Running With Arnold,” Red Envelope Entertainment, 2008]
It’s one thing to make a one-sided documentary and it’s quite another to make a one-sided documentary and claim impartiality. Though in the film’s press notes, director Dan Cox claims he was “determined to maintain an objective stance,” his documentary “Running With Arnold” is chock full of the sort of techniques that he claims in the same statement are “anathema to journalism.”
Cox, a former Variety editor, says that Michael Moore “manipulates images and facts to create over-the-top points that ultimately ring hollow.” Perhaps, but one could easily level the same critique on “Running With Arnold.” Consider a scene late in the film, after Schwarzenegger has won the California recall and become the world’s first Governator. As part of a larger sequence about how Schwarzenegger reneged on populist campaign promises to fall in line with the national Republican agenda, Alec Baldwin’s narration describes Arnold’s plan to privatize the state pension plans. “It made sense,” Baldwin says, “Certainly, corporations knew how to manage the futures of their employees.” Cut to a shot of Kenneth Lay being dragged away in handcuffs and then one of Anderson Cooper talking about Enron’s collapse.
Most of “Running With Arnold” is laced with that sort of derisive tone. There’re as many sound bytes from comics like as Bill Maher, Rob Schneider and the members of a comedy troupe called Laughing Liberally as there are from journalists, historians or cultural critics. The film is only 70 minutes long to begin with, but with that many jokes, superficial digs and guys impersonating President Bush, there’s not much time for more weighty material.
Some of the comedians’ material is clever, but I’m of the opinion that Schwarzenegger’s legacy in both the political and cinematic arenas is worthy of far more serious discussion. When Cox does dial down the snark and focuses more on the issues, his investigative findings are mild at best and pretty one-sided. In discussing Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial record, he observes, with loads of outrage, that he consistently promised one thing during his campaign and then did something different when he got into office. This is shocking how, exactly? Isn’t that what most politicians do?
He tends to assume the worst of Schwarzenegger for instance, during his discussion of Schwarzenegger’s father’s history with the Nazi party, Cox suggests that the Governator’s donations and work with the Jewish human rights organization the Simon Wiesenthal Center were part of a “careful manipulation of the media” to smooth over potentially damaging public relations, without even acknowledging the awards Schwarzenegger has won for his work with the Center or the possibility that his actions could have been well-intentioned. Cox’s attempt to tie Schwarzenegger to the Nazis was the source of Baldwin’s widely reported complaints with the film and the reason for his attempt to remove his name and voiceover from the picture over a year ago, calling the images “unfair,” “ultimately offensive” and “over the line” in a piece he wrote on The Huffington Post.
I would never vote for Schwarzenegger for public office and I’d agree with Cox that he was underqualified for his new career path in public service. But that doesn’t mean Arnold is or was stupid. If he was, he’d own a gym somewhere in Venice Beach and spend all day telling his employees about the glory days of making “Hercules in New York.” Instead of treating him like an opportunistic dummy, Schwarzenegger deserves a documentary (evenhanded or not) that treats his legacy seriously and confronts it critically.