Early in the documentary Generation Iron, bodybuilding icon Arnold Schwarzenegger observes that "Bodybuilding falls into this unique category of being a sport, entertainment, being a way of life, and art." It's an uneasy quartet of ideas forced to harmonize within bodies intentionally made freakish and/or beautiful. Director Vlad Yudin spends a year tracking the brutal physical, mental, and spiritual training of seven top competitors (including all-stars such as Phil Heath, Kai Greene, Branch Warren, and Dennis Wolf) for the Mr. Olympia title, and ends up with a gorgeous meditation on age-old existential concerns. As the men work through their regimens and go about daily struggles to balance personal lives and career goals (struggles which take place on farms, in McMansions, and in housing projects), the film — narrated by Mickey Rourke — returns in beautifully unforced ways to questions regarding hard work versus natural gifts, and which is more important to success. And exactly how do we define success, anyway? It grapples with questions about the nature of work and its worth beyond material payoff. And, crucially, when every man onstage has the unshakable belief that he's the most deserving candidate, that his hard work will absolutely be rewarded with glory, what happens to those who fall short on the scorecards? These questions resonate far beyond the world of bodybuilders, of course, and Yudin pulls lovely philosophical grace notes from his subjects as they illuminate some universal truths from their very specific world. (Ernest Hardy)
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