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How Arnold Won the West
2004 was the year of the politically motivated documentary, with partisan shots fired across the bow and quickie DVD replies fired back. Somewhere into the barrage of Bush-related diatribes shuffled How Arnold Won The West, Alex Cooke's look at the Governator's bizarre capturing of the state governorship after an acrid recall of embattled governor Gray Davis.
The campaign (which featured as many as 135 candidates including Gary Coleman, porn star Mary Carey and a host of other characters) was a true circus of modern American political theater. The understated Davis, caught in an avalanche of state problems at least partially caused by federal problems, was swept away in what cannot possibly be considered a rational, serious political campaign by anyone. Cooke's perspective - that the recall was actual a coup d'etat - is influenced by the fact that the recall was spurred on by a multimillionaire who paid people to collect signatures. Cooke is right to suggest that this means that anyone with a few million bucks to burn can recall any politician that they want in a place where recalls are allowed - not something the drafters of that law intended, to be sure.
The film itself looks long and hard at Schwarzenegger's campaign promises and finds the rhetoric filled with big ideas, strong criticisms, and humorous catch-phrases, but short on specific solutions. Arnold is not above waving a broom in the air and talking about cleaning house, or getting Dee Snider to perform "We're Not Gonna Take It" at a rally. But this almost feels like old-time politics compared to the Game Show Network's broadcast competition to find candidates for the office. How Arnold Won The West follows the ongoing game show leading up to the election (Bikini-clad Mary Carey ultimately wins) as an example of just how ludicrous this process became.
The problem with the film, however, is that it doesn't offer much beyond its basic observations on the situation. There is little in the way of insight and the low-budget nature of the production finds it filled mostly with lengthy excerpts from press conferences and protests. Granted, much of this footage will be new to viewers, but it's barely gripping, vital material. With Schwarzenegger firmly in place as California's governor, anything short of shocking new scandal over the election is totally irrelevant.
The filmmaker's perspective is also weirdly ambivalent. The narrator (who I assume is the director) talks early on in the first person about how she wanted to learn more about the Schwarzenegger campaign. But we have no idea who she is. When Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield or even Martin Bashir tell us that they have a personal interest in the subject matter, attentive audiences have a starting point of reference. When a disembodied voice says it, it's meaningless.
Mostly the film is a repository for footage from this weird campaign, some boring and some fascinating. When a journalist from a conservative publication bristles at his lack of access to the Schwarzenegger bus (and gets the door slammed in his face) his frustration is pretty compelling. And when Schwarzenegger flaunts his billion-dollar resources in lieu of actually sitting down and talking with the media in any kind of meaningful way, the election system becomes transparently unfair. Still, by now Arnold's election is a done deal and the circumstances by which he got there make pretty stale subject matter. The most interesting subject in the film might be Sharon Davis, wife of the embattled governor. She keeps her composure throughout, but in a few moments of candor, she discusses the absurdity of the recall and the Schwarzenegger campaign. It's all she can do to not throw her hands in the air and proclaim "What's wrong with you people? Don't you see what's happening here?"
Much of the location footage from the campaign trail looks pretty rotten, with colors often way oversaturated and too bright. At other times it looks like reasonably crisp video footage, but it never looks great. It's anamorphic widescreen.
The audio, like the video, comes from a variety of location sources, so it too has a rough and inconsistent quality. Voices aren't always that easy to make out.
A lengthy selection of extra segments makes this disc pretty valuable to those looking for more Arnold. Included is a speech he gave that it virtually identical to the one he later gave at the Republican National Convention (the one where he called Richard Nixon a "breath of fresh air!") as well as a wrap-up interview with Sharon Davis.
Mary Carey's ridiculous campaign ad is included, which is eye-popping, to say the least, as is the trailer for How Arnold Won The West (which seems to have been encode for DVD incorrectly and is virtually unwatchable) as well as some other trailers for similar releases.
How Arnold Won The West can't manage to whip up much of a passionate argument for anything. Yeah, it observes that money can buy success in politics, but who cares? Is that a revolutionary statement? It doesn't delve deep enough into the underlying problems that got Gray Davis into the mess he found himself in. It's no surprise that a celebrity of Arnold's caliber and magnetism can mobilize a fan-base. What really matters now is, can he do something with the opportunity he has?