For much of the 20th century, fitness was still a fairly small industry, and bodybuilding was an extremely niche pursuit, with bodybuilding contests viewed as something like a carnival freak show by the average person. Then, in 1977, the documentary Pumping Iron changed all that, by introducing a pair of charismatic bodybuilding rivals named Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno to the general public, launching acting careers for both of them and instantly making weight-lifting cool. In other words, this is the film that gave us Conan the Barbarian and The Incredible Hulk, as well as being directly responsible for the popularity of the fitness and physical conditioning hobbies to this day. In addition to its role in history, it also provides a fun look back at life in 1970s America, and depicts the intense psychological drama pervading elite-level competition. Plus, a whole lot of retro beefcake, if you're into that sort of thing.
Seriously, in his prime, Arnold's pecs were like a truck bearing down on you
Life of the Party (Positives):
For a movie about huge guys doing deadlifts, Pumping Iron is a surprisingly lightweight documentary (hurr hurr). Narration is rare, and the formal interview segments are few and far between – most of the movie's time is spent just silently following the characters through their training days and showing what the backstage of competition is like. Although the original concept of the movie was to follow the training of actor Bud Cort, a bodybuilding novice, that plan eventually fell through, shifting most of the focus to Cort's trainer, Arnold Schwarzenegger (five-time Mr. Olympia at that point), and several other amateur and professional competitors as they prepare for a world title competition. Hence, the movie is less about gritty details of training and the bodybuilding lifestyle, and more about the drama of competition and where these athletes get their dedication from. Several of the athletes share stories about their motivations, and the psychological techniques they use to train harder and ensure a victory on the show stage.
Since the movie focuses more on the mental and social aspects of the sport, even someone with no interest in picking up heavy things and putting them back down again can enjoy the interplay of the characters. The rivalry between Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger is played up quite a bit, and their training montages are shot specifically to show their differences in background. Ferrigno, the reserved, blue-collar underdog, works out in a cramped, dingy weightroom with his middle-aged father, while Schwarzenegger, the dominating world champion, lifts in a shiny Venice Beach gym and poses for magazine photoshoots with half-naked women. It's like a Rocky movie more than anything, though I won't spoil whether Rocky or Ivan Drago ends up winning - despite the movie coming out two years after it was shot, they do their best to maintain dramatic tension and I'd hate to ruin it now.
The '70s, when not even the gyms were safe from the scourges of ugly carpet and tacky wood paneling.
Potential Hangovers (Negatives):
What's most emphasized in the story of Pumping Iron is the variety of personalities that get involved in the sport, from the completely benign to the totally ruthless. If you're a big Arnold Schwarzenegger fan, you'll want to see this movie, though you might be slightly put off by how psychotically competitive he seems to be, to a degree that seems almost unsportsmanlike. He regularly talks about trying to psyche out his opponents to gain an advantage on stage, stories of pranks he’s pulled on unsuspecting peers, and even shares an anecdote about skipping his father's funeral because it didn't fit his training schedule. Despite being the main character, Arnold is in many ways the monolithic villain of the movie, which is an unusual filmmaking choice that can make viewers a little uncomfortable – thanks to his personality, he remains so damn likeable despite his rampant douchebaggery. Other leading bodybuilders seem the same way, and it's odd that you're supposed to be sharing in the pride and joy of guys who come off like a bunch of egotistical bullies. They’re not bad people outside of competition, but when it comes to winning, they’re deadly serious and will seize any advantage they can.
At the same time, I will spoil one thing about this movie for you: a lot of the big dramatic moments were at least semi-staged. The making-of documentary that's included on most DVDs of Pumping Iron goes into detail about how Schwarzenegger partnered with the director to portray himself as more of a villain, just to help the movie's plot, and how some scenes were actually shot out of order to attribute motivations for certain actions that weren't actually there at the time. Is this cheating? Kindof. It makes for a more interesting viewing experience, certainly, though it's more of a stretch to call it a true documentary when you find out how many dramatic shenanigans were involved.
The Atmosphere – Solo Experience, Lazy Afternoon (Ironically):
At the end of the day, even if some elements were essentially faked, Pumping Iron is still a straightforward depiction of the dedication and insanely hard work that it takes to chisel a perfectly Herculean form, and in that way, it's inspirational. If it had been a movie just about training, all the characters would be perfectly admirable, it’s just the competitive element that brings out everyone's dark side. This movie is beloved by serious athletic types for the inspiration factor, and is an interesting documentary even just as a snapshot of '70s culture, right down to the funky theme song. You've seen Lou Ferrigno posing and lifting plenty of times, but have you seen a long shot of Lou Ferrigno lovingly feathering his hair? Seriously, man, this movie is SEVENTIES. Despite its charm, this isn’t the kind of movie for parties, unless it's a background for a veeeery particular theme night, but as an interesting niche documentary, it's an entertaining production about a little-understood topic. Just go into it armed with the knowledge that all the dramatics were definitely on the juice.
+ Intriguing exploration of the psychological drama of elite-level sports.
+ Young before-they-were-stars delivering quotable lines and getting into amusing situations (like one scene where Arnold does a demo at a prison and gets constantly hit on).
+/- Absolute acres of dude on display. There’s loads of flesh, like, all the time.
- Story structure makes it hard to root for the guys when they’re all being dicks to each other.
- Some elements being staged makes this not a “clean” documentary.
Drinking Game Suggestions:
~ Drink whenever Arnold flashes the “goofy Arnold smile”
~ Drink whenever someone says the word big, huge, or any other synonym for largeness
~ Drink whenever someone checks himself out in a mirror
~ NO PAIN NO GAIN MODE: Whenever someone starts doing reps, chug for the duration of those reps