HOW ARNOLD WON THE WEST
Directed by Alex Cooke
In How Arnold Won The West documentary filmmaker Alex Cooke followed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign for Governor of California during the Recall Election of 2003. He was one of 135 candidates that ran. Some of them had good ideas to fix the state’s financial problems, some ran to fulfill their political ambitions, and some used the race as a vehicle to promote themselves and their products. Even I momentarily thought about getting into the race but didn’t have the $3500 fee to throw away.
While many California Governors have been subject to recall efforts, this was the first serious attempt in quite a while due to the $1.7 million contributed by Congressman Darrell Issa. He made his money in the car alarm business, an interesting career choice when you learn that he was charged twice with auto theft and his brother was convicted multiple times. Issa was expecting his generosity to be rewarded by Republican Party leaders backing his run to replace Davis, but he withdrew when Arnold got into the race with party support. At his press conference, Issa bawled like an infant.
Cooke is in the trenches with the press corps, following Arnold as he tours the state. Her access provides an intriguing look at the inner working of day-to-day, political campaigning. As Arnold travels to events, his spin-doctors keep the press at bay. He brushes off the local reporters, giving them sound bites instead of answers to their questions. The promise of an interview is the bait that keeps them coming back.
Arnold appears on television shows, unchallenged by brainless hosts who are happy to see the spike in their ratings. Eventually, Arnold has to participate in one debate because his poll numbers aren’t high enough. Arianna Huffington is the only candidate who challenges Arnold. The others are happy to finally be getting airtime, but she stays on point attacking Arnold and gives as good as she gets.
Arnold’s poll numbers go up afterwards, which is completely baffling because aside from silly one-liners that made him look cool, he never said how he was going to fix the state’s problems, but he does say all the right things that the public wants to hear: “You’re taxed too much.” “The government wastes your money.” “I’m going to protect the children.” The fact that he has no plan other than to replace Gray Davis as Governor was good enough for enough people.
While avoiding the press worked for a while, they started to do some investigating; however, like any good action hero, Arnold was able to deflect every attack. He denies things and then comes up with ridiculous responses that inexplicably work. When they find old interviews that contain outrageous comments about sex and drug use, he says they were calculated to draw an interest in bodybuilding. On a four-day bus tour to close out the campaign, The Los Angeles Times breaks a story about Arnold’s inappropriate actions with some women, which he explains were the results of working on rowdy movie sets. He never specifically admits wrongdoings, but if anyone was offended, he apologizes. Nothing affects Arnold’s numbers. What the documentary fails to mention is that it was discovered that The Times held the story for weeks and chose to release it right before the election, causing the story to be about The Times' actions rather than Arnold's.
There are other times where the documentary doesn’t provide the full story, and if I hadn’t been a Californian who lived through the recall, I wouldn’t have known it. For example, the story of the recall isn’t just about Arnold steamrolling through the system. Gray Davis did mishandle events and opened the door to his political demise. Before the vote, Davis essentially lost the recall when he supported driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants. It was obvious political pandering, since he had previously been against the idea the year before. Nor does it make mention that the voting public are the real reason for the state’s financial problems as opposed to any political scapegoat they want to name.
Cooke has a lot of access to Davis’ wife, but she doesn’t get much from other Democrats. I would have been curious to hear their reactions to the recall as it was happening. Also, there should have been more man-on-the-street footage to get a better sense of what the public was thinking. Too much commentary comes from actors in superhero costumes on Hollywood Blvd.
Even though it doesn’t present the complete story of the 2003 Recall Election, HAWTW covers the most intriguing component of it, so Cooke’s focus is understandable. For the most part, Cooke’s documentary presents a fairly accurate portrait of what happened. It will be of great interest to political junkies.