It may not be entirely factual and it may not even be entirely "real", but Pumping Iron stands up today as one of the best documentaries you can treat yourself to. It's all about bodybuilders and looks at both amateurs and professionals as they train to take part in the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions in 1975. The focus of the whole thing is Arnold Schwarzenneger, not quite the star he would become, but already emanating charisma and a forceful presence as he sets out to defend his Mr. Olympia title and try to win it for the sixth time, fending off Serge Nubret, Franco Columbu and a young Lou Ferrigno.
Based on an idea by George Butler (who co-wrote the book "Pumping Iron" with Charles Gaines and then co-directed this with Robert Fiore), it's certainly a documentary with an interesting subject at its core anyway, but things are made doubly interesting by the presence of Arnie. The man is the physical embodiment of how to achieve success by putting your mind to it and shedding the blood, sweat and tears. Of course, the same can be said of all the competitors shown, but there's a reason that Arnie is the only one of them trying to win Mr. Olympia for the sixth time. He's charming for every moment that he's onscreen, even when he's deliberately attempting to psyche out a nervous Lou Ferrigno, but he's completely focused on absolutely everything he does, whether that's weightlifting or speaking to an interviewer or making "smalltalk" with the competition before going on stage.
If this was all just about Arnie, however, then it would soon get pretty tiring. Thankfully, the other tales being told are equally worthy of the time given over to them. Seeing Lou Ferrigno being trained and motivated by his father hammers home just how much effort is required in every department. Ferrigno has the size, but does he have the definition? Does he have the ability to pose fluidly and perfectly, showing off his muscles in the best way possible? Then we have the sportsmanship, or lack of it, shown by Ken Waller as he competes in an amateur competition against Mike Katz. The latter seems like a fairly sweet guy, which is a shame when he ends up alongside someone like Waller (who doesn't seem to have the skills/charm/intelligence of Schwarzenneger and so just resorts to pettiness to help him have the upper hand in the competition).
Great documentaries are the ones that just get the stars to align while the camera is rolling. They capture lightning in a bottle, as I've mentioned before, and they appeal to a broad audience, no matter how niche the subject matter seems to be. I can see Pumping Iron putting off plenty of people - there were moments in the first 5-10 minutes in which I wasn't sure if I could keep watching those bulging muscles and veins (it's pretty gross to a weedling like me) - but how can you really not want to watch anything that starts off with Schwarzenegger learning some ballet moves to improve his posing technique?