Earlier this week, ESPN premiered its newest 30 for 30 Shorts series with a 10-minute film called Arnold’s Blueprint (watch it here), about the years leading up to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s unique and unprecedented rise to fame. These documentary projects are important looks at compelling sports stories from around the globe. The quality of the pieces vary, with some, like June 17, 1994 or No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, being genuinely fascinating and others, such as Straight Outta LA, being well-intentioned but inadvertently slight.
While I’m thrilled to see these short non-fiction hits, this Arnold piece falls sadly on the side of slight. There’s some strong talking head interview edits, where Arnold’s charisma and the sheer girth of his face dominates the frame. Most interesting are the cuts to moments of silent contemplation or sadness. It’s different to see emotion overcome this man’s face as he made a career out of subverting truth behind muscle and fantasy. Directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist gathered an array of wonderful photographs of Arnold from his days in Austria. Even as a 12-year-old, his face wore a charm that stood out from the crowd. How could you not stare a boy with such a unique look as Arnold’s? This film, like My Week with Marilyn, made me wonder if there are certain people who are just born to be watched.
What made the film slight for me was exactly what made the Zimbalist’s The Two Escobars (their previous 30 for 30 excursion) slight. It simply didn’t have a spine. The storytelling recited the facts in a clean manner, but did little to probe a man who has grown to be quite controversial. Perhaps, there’s something refreshing about a film that doesn’t beat a dead horse, but what’s the value in going deep into Arnold’s past without a hint of what it means to his future? The basic conceit of Arnold being a driven man who has succeeded at following his dreams seems to me a glorified avoidance of how his ego has always been his Achilles’ heel. James Toback’s Tyson and Errol Morris’ Fog of War had similar first person approaches to difficult characters, but their style maintained throughout that this was a their subject’s version of the story, not the filmmakers. The artificially doctored footage between Schwarzenagger’s bites felt like an objective retelling of events, without a soul to who was telling it.
This piece had me thinking of the under-appreciated 1977 film, Pumping Iron. As much as Bob Dylan in Dont Look Now, Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron was at the arrogant prime of his career. Scene after scene, he playfully toys with his less intelligent and charismatic adversary, Lou Ferrigno. In this film we can see the entire, if tragic, trajectory of Arnold’s future. Too talented and forward-thinking to fail, but, for the same reasons, destined to let his ego get the better of him. For anyone who hasn’t seen Pumping Iron, adding it to your Netflix queue will not be a disappointment.
ESPN has joined the likes of HBO and Showtime by continuing to produce compelling documentary films. Moving into short films will allow them to appeal to the shorter-attention-span, web-based crowd. Sports have an enormous affect on our culture. They tend to mirror our hopes and failures, they can unite communities, and bring us out of despair. ESPN should be applauded for continuing to present sports in a serious manner.