Good versus evil sells
“Pumping Iron” helped launch Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career as an actor in Hollywood, highlighting his charisma and ego as much as his sculpted body. And for good reasons, because even Schwarzenegger knows that just watching a bunch of men lift heavy weights for 90 minutes would make for a boring film.
“Look, the training is terrific, what they’re doing is terrific,” Schwarzenegger said in an interview for another documentary called “Raw Iron: The Making of ‘Pumping Iron.’” “But how much can we look at this footage of them doing squats and chinups and situps and all this?”
So “Pumping Iron” directors George Butler and Robert Fiore created conflict that didn’t exist. They hooked viewers by pitting Schwarzenegger, the long-standing champion, against his underdog competitors.
Schwarzenegger has admitted to playing up his egotistical qualities for the cameras to fulfill his role as the villain of the scripted documentary. In real life, many of the other competitors featured in the film as his rivals were his good friends.
These fake storylines are the bread and butter of reality TV nowadays, but many documentary filmmakers, especially those who don’t see themselves as journalists, will also use the editing process to amp up the entertainment value.
Oliver Lee Bateman, a historian, journalist and strength athlete, says that without the use of manufactured drama like that seen in “Pumping Iron,” bodybuilding would have never become as mainstream as it did in the decades after the film was released.
“Before ‘Pumping Iron,’ bodybuilding was very much a [subculture]. … When you were involved in bodybuilding, that was something that you might spend hours on it, but you’d keep it to yourself,” Bateman said on “Marketplace Morning Report.”
“But ‘Pumping Iron,’ by telling the story that it did in the way that it did, it really, really reshaped the discourse on bodybuilding nationally.”
More professional bodybuilders began starring in TV shows and Hollywood movies, becoming household names and elevating the industry and the related competitions as well. In recent years though, that shine has worn off as social media platforms have allowed fitness influencers to make a name for themselves without relying on publicity from the bodybuilding industry and its various competitions.
Listen to an extended version of Bateman’s interview with David Brancaccio on the Marketplace website.
How to watch “Pumping Iron”
For January, Econ Extra Credit has selected the film “Pumping Iron,” which is available to watch for free on YouTube as well as Tubi, Plex, and Vudu. It also available to stream without ads on Kanopy and Hoopla for many library card holders.
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