BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER*PG-13
Like many American kids in the 1980s, Christopher Bell and his two brothers were enamored of the powerful superheroes who vanquished the enemies of America on both the TV screen and in the wrestling ring. However, unlike most of those kids—who tended to go on to lives of negligent physicality—the Bell brothers turned their televisual obsessions into real passions. By the time high school was done, all three of the once-chubby siblings had become musclebound sights to behold, their barrel-like torsos and thick biceps a striking rebuke to the tormentors of their youth. They all continued to lift and work out well into adulthood, with one big difference: Two used steroids as part of their regimen.
Christopher Bell’s personable documentary about steroids, Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, benefits greatly from his family-centric approach to the subject, without which it might have remained just another narrow-cast film trying to chip off a handful of converts from mainstream wisdom. Starting with his childhood reminiscences about heroes like Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan (the first scenes are actually from a 1984 match in which Hogan “defeated” that Iranian terror, the Iron Sheik), Bell first tracks his obsession with strength and size, before focusing on the nation’s cult of unattainable perfection and coming up with some unexpected insights.
The former fat kid is now a 30-plus gym rat who works out every day at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach (legendary for being the place that “Ahnuld” used to train) but never quite attained superstardom or ultra-muscle mass, though he did work as a writer and producer for WWE. Trying to figure out why guys juice—after a brief flirtation with the stuff, Bell decided to forego it—he interviews everyone from muscle-magazine editors and sports-medicine experts to the 50-year-old Gold’s Gym habitué who sleeps in a van in the parking lot. At first, Bell ignores the personal angle in favor of jaunting from one interviewee to the next in a peppy, Super Size Me-style cavalcade of dueling experts and muscleheads. Instead of critiquing the obsession with muscle-building, though, Bell goes after the anti-steroid hysteria of the last few years.
Given the amount of statistics-free propaganda and fulmination out there on the subject, the film has an easy time pile-driving straw-men. Although Bell’s methods flirt with bad taste in a Michael Moore-esque confrontation of a man who testified to the Senate that steroid use caused his son to commit suicide, the comic value of unearthing clips of Ben Affleck’s 1994 ’roid-rage movie-of-the-week cannot be overstated. More vividly, Bell attacks the double-standards that outlaw steroids for athletes but allow unregulated sale of “supplements” by enlisting a couple of day-laborers and a few dollars’ worth of basic ingredients to concoct his own, utterly untested supplement. Scenes that attack the larger hypocrisy of society show everything from classical musicians taking performance-enhancing beta blockers to control their nervousness while performing, to Air Force pilots instructed to take judgment-impairing amphetamines (or “go pills”) on long missions.
Fortunately, just when it looks like Bigger, Stronger, Faster* is going to turn into a limited-issue attack film (like a Spurlock-sized episode of Penn & Teller’s debunking series “Bullshit!”), Bell turns the camera on his family. The results muddy what could have been a simplistic take on a messy issue, and the film succeeds because of it. Bell’s brothers, one a powerlifting champion and high-school coach who tells his kids not to juice and the other a failed pro wrestler, are both still on steroids. While the film makes clear that the use of steroids (a loosely defined amalgamation) is hardly as dangerous as often portrayed, it seems clear that both men are addicted in some form, at least to an idealized pursuit of Herculean strength. Bell keeps returning to the idea of steroid use being not just a form of cheating, but also a response to a society that values winning by any means necessary as a top priority, and he’s smart enough not to present any easy answers.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster* won’t win any points for subtlety. But the same lack of personal distance that keeps Bell from scoring cheap shots against the anti-steroid hysterics is the same connection that powers the film’s emotional take on America’s cult of winning, and the price paid by those who see themselves as losers.