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Schwarzenegger--The last of the American "great men"

Suggested headline: Arnold: The last American "great man"

By PRABHAT MEHTA

THOSE WHO STILL WONDER WHY there should be free trade and open borders need only be reminded of one man: Arnold Schwarzenegger. This irreplaceable national asset, who likely does more to reduce our trade deficit than the Big Three automakers combined, is in fact an import from Austria. Which is cause for concern until one remembers that in 1983 Arnold became a US citizen.

Indeed, the name Schwarzenegger has become synonymous with meticulously groomed action flicks, an institution of our popular culture which also happens to be a principal export commodity. And with the passage of time one awaits even grander spectacles from a man whose movie budgets -- and, I presume, whose earnings -- balloon at a rate even faster than the number of ammo clips expended per movie. That is why a $94-million sequel to a movie made with a budget of a feathery $6.5 million just seven years ago had nearly broken even before it hit the box office. And that is also why, after just five days, the movie had grossed $52.3 million at the nation's box offices.

Producer and director James Cameron, in devising a sequel to his 1984 Terminator, knew what Arnold and his loyal fans (of whom I am one) would expect seven years later. And, for the most part, in delivering Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he has not disappointed. For the most part because, while the first half appropriately builds in suspense, the pay-off is only worthy of, say, a $50-million flick of the Schwarzeneggerian genre.

But hope is renewed in the knowledge that Arnold -- who in the last few years has consolidated his position as the nation's keystone by marrying into the Kennedy family (and giving it some long-needed respectability -- and, more importantly, Republican genes), heading the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, receiving the Simon Wiesenthal Center's National Leadership Award, amassing a well-respected art collection, and looking good alongside Tonight Show host-designate Jay Leno -- is hard at work sifting through the mountains of scripts outside his door, plotting yet another mind-boggling action-thriller, or, in keeping with his good friend George Bush's philosophy, a kinder, gentler romantic comedy. For we know that his standards -- like his biceps -- are higher than ours. Of one thing I can be certain: He'll be back.

But let us not get bogged down in such nuances as direction of thumbs, which are for reviewers [see review of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, this page], not admirers. What we, as admirers, see is the next evolutionary step in filmmaking technology, brought to you by Industrial Light & Magic, the George Lucas-founded outfit that came into being during the Star Wars era. The special effects in this movie are so real that they are almost unnoticeable. It is taken for granted that globules of molten metal can reconstitute themselves into a T-1000, the next-generation of cybernetic Terminators, as it seems almost ordinary that this malleable menace walks through iron bars with the ease of, as a Ginsu salesman might say, butter through hot knives.

These effects do not say anything about Arnold except that, were it not for his worldwide appeal and his high standards, they might never have come to the big screen. One cannot hold that social forces will inevitably bring about such dramatic evolution in filmmaking. It is the great man, in this case Arnold, whose talents and efforts, like those of his Terminator characters, determine the course of history.

Arnold represents the excellence that this country has for the most part renounced. Our general economic and political malaise -- and its corollary scapegoating -- look pitiful in the wake of Arnold's steely will and iron discipline. The efforts of human-rights advocates Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, having recently begun to yield gloriously through the collapse of communism, show how individuals can move mountains. However, it seems that in this country, mountains as tiny as the deficit and our decline in competitiveness are too large for everyone but Arnold, the last true American "great man."

Perhaps, in the face of such perfection as Arnold, we all sink into shame, hoping that he will pull us along for a while. (Indeed, his efforts to have marketed a civilian version of the military's Hum-Vee all-terrain vehicle ("What, do you want to just wait until the Japanese come by and beat you at this?" he asks unforgivingly) may just result in another couple million off our trade deficit.) Of course, if that is true, then a constitutional amendment is in order: one that will enable an Austrian-born man of best intentions to become President Arnold. ("What, do you think I'm going to let you flabby-wabby girlymen sit in front of that TV and scratch your tummy-hairs?")

Makes me feel like getting to the gym.