Judge Bill Gibron reviews this disc without once referring to him as Ahnuld or the Gropinator.
TAX! TAX! TAX!…SPEND! SPEND! SPEND!
By now, everyone knows the story. California Governor Gray Davis, recently reelected for a second term as the leading politician of the third largest state in America, was on the hot seat. During his first four years in office, the culturally and financially diverse region had suffered through a flagging economy (thanks in no small part to the dot-com crash), an inordinate rise in crime, and a utility crisis where citizens suffered through escalating rates and routine black/brown-outs. Add that to an already growing list of concerns, what with the threat of terrorism, the war in Iraq, and the never-ending problems of immigration and education, and an angry populace—not to mention a competing political party—was looking for a scapegoat. Davis became the whipping boy for California's woes, and an entrepreneur from Washington DC held the key to the State's salvation. Darrell Issa, who made millions selling Viper car alarms to a crime-crazed nation, had recently been elected to Congress. Within the first few months of his term, he changed his focus, dug up a 100 year old law allowing the removal of a sitting governor, dumped almost $1.7 million of his own money into the cause, and prepared to run for leader of his home state. The Recall was on.
Then Arnold Schwarzenegger came along. Always hinting that he would one day run for public office during the course of his career as a Hollywood action hero, the man who was Conan stole the thunder from all the serious candidates and became the odds-on front-runner to take over the top State spot. But since the campaign was open to anyone who wanted to run, another 134 candidates signed up, some serious about their intentions, others using their platform as a way of protesting the recall. In the end, even with controversy swirling around his past, the recall went through and Arnold handily beat the rest of the pack and became the Governor of California. Yet the main issue still remains: How did an Austrian bodybuilder become the leader of the fifth-largest economy in the world? Many continue to wonder just How Arnold Won the West.
It's really too bad, then, that How Arnold Won the West is not more insightful. With such a ripe subject, such a complete piece of political theater at her disposal, filmmaker Alex Cooke had a chance to tear the lid off the outdated and ill-defined American electoral process. She could have focused on the facts, avoided all the speech stumping and spin doctoring, and simply exposed what a sham of a system it all is. From the hundreds of candidates to the arcane 100-year-old law that was used to fuel the recall, Cooke had a treasure trove of data and drama at her disposal. But just like the citizens of California, she gets caught up in the star power of the leading players in this farce—Schwarzenegger, his Kennedy trophy wife Maria Shriver, the Republican Congressman Darrell Issa who financed the vote, and the embattled Governor Davis and his well-meaning wife—and she loses track of her tale. There are several times when the real movie makes its way through the duller than dishwater rhetoric and insulted journalists who can't get access to the celebrity candidate, to hit on something sensational (the Mary Carrey campaign, the GSN cable channel "Debate" game show). But time and time again, Cooke makes the mistake of letting the camera linger as hot air-addled windbags plum their poppycock feathers for a media voracious for any and all sound bites.
True, much of this perverted political process can be entertaining, and when filtered properly through an agenda or ideal that helps us appreciate the impact and the content, a campaign speech can become a telling personal blueprint. But Cooke never really announces an intent with How Arnold Won the West. She just sits back, points the camera, and lets the players perform their part in this tainted community pantomime. On rare occasions, she captures gold. In other instances, she records the flailing stupidity of a citizenry in love with fame. Most of the time, this flawed fact film offers up boredom—completely and utterly pathetic two-party pabulum laced with lies and disheartening half-truths. Arnold himself may be an entertaining presence on screen, but he makes for one derivative soapbox shill. Cooke constantly uses the Terminator's words against him, but the results just don't have the bite, or the buffoonery she is looking for. Indeed, when given the chance to showcase the aggressive opportunists' Teflon talent, she dismisses it with a sentence, not a thorough discussion. Much of How Arnold Won the West is surface, as if Cooke considered "showing" the circus that was the California recall the same as really "telling" us about it.
Perhaps the best way to gauge the lack of success in Cooke's conceit is by answering the following question—how much of the movie would exist had she not been able to take part in the proceedings? The answer, surprisingly, is quite a bit. All the Game Show Network material, all the debate footage and campaign stops, are part of the public domain of information. One could probably recreate 2/3rds of this documentary without ever having to do much except some editing—just tap into a major media archive and instantly create your own screed. Granted, Cooke does get a few off-the-cuff moments from her fellow press passengers, and the final act fiasco of the statewide bus tour (Arnold's campaign arranged for six buses to trek up and down California just as allegations of sexual misconduct were starting to take hold) finally fulfills some of the film's forewarned promise. But again, Cooke gets lost in the hoopla and the histrionics, unable to provide the perspective or the passion that would make all this muckraking necessary. She was blessed with one hell of a story, but How Arnold Won the West mismanages a lot of the obvious anarchy committed by both sides to repeatedly let the pumped-up lunkhead hang himself.
But he never really does. Arnold comes across as an industrialist and an outsider, a cold, calculated professional politician "playing" at being a man of the people. Somewhere along the line, he found a way to channel his fame into a familiarity that actually fooled people into believing he was a regular guy, like them. They forgot about the mega-super-international stardom, the ritzy lifestyle, and the Kennedy connection. Nope, Arnie was just a dumb dude, just like them, and if he wanted to take on such a screwed-up system, why not let him? Only problem is, Cooke never comes across with any of that information. It has to be gleaned from the static scenes she presents and remembered from other reports on the recall campaign. How Arnold Won the West is like a book report—a fiercely factual presentation that offers no analysis or meaning. Some may enjoy the simple, stagnant pleasures of seeing Arnold stump, the other candidates jump, and Gray David slump as the tide is turned directly against him in what Cooke calls a "coup d'etat" (funny how, in the final thirty seconds of the narrative, she offers up her take on the entire process…). But with the outcome already obvious and known, and an overly prepared context to every conversation or speech, there is no drama here, no comedy of corruption or backroom intrigue to be found. Maybe to an outsider looking in on this flawed, freaked out American process (Cooke is from the UK) we appear like jokers marking our political territory with reckless abandon, but How Arnold Won the West is not the satirical shot Cooke means it to be. While parts of it are very entertaining, ennui meets most of the pallid pronouncements offered here.
One has to credit The Disinformation Company for continually stirring the pot on issues long swept under the rug by the mainstream media, and they give How Arnold Won the West a quality DVD presentation. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is clean, clear, and filled with perfectly modulated yet singularly divergent elements. This means that everything, from the first person POV footage shot by Cooke to the incorporated archival material, looks fine. The Dolby Digital Stereo is very suspect, though, since Cooke decided to use an internal microphone to capture her conversations and speeches. The camcorder is often so far away that even amplified orations sound like a whisper. When she does engage people one-on-one, the aural attributes are excellent (as in anytime she uses archival material). But the overall sonics are scrappy, and a tad intolerable most of the time.
Disinformation gives us a nice bonus package, a combination of outtakes, unused footage, and factoids about the California Recall that paints a pretty pathetic picture. The additional scenes are really just more of the same—more campaigning, more spinning, more whining. There are a couple of clever segments here, but mostly it's repetitive of something we've more or less seen before. The rest of the added content is nice, but nominal. Mary Carrey's campaign ads proves that sex can't sell everything (taxing breast implants!?!) and the statistical breakdown of the dollar amounts spent on the recall are interesting, if just a little dry.
Over the last 15 months, California and its celebrity governor have fallen out of the nightly news spotlight. He has struggled to get the legislature to follow his agenda and in return, the public has positioned themselves in a very "wait and see" kind of mindset. They haven't written their hero off quite yet (there is even a push for him to run next year, in 2006), but he sure hasn't sent the state's problems packing. Those who think that the situation in Sacramento is one non-stop dopey laugh riot will probably find a rib or two of theirs tickled by How Arnold Won the West, but for many, this monotonous take on a pure piece of arcane Americana won't convince them of something they don't already know: The California Recall was a stupid sham. How Arnold Won the West never gets to the heart of the charade.
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