Bigger, Stronger, Faster
It’s not often that a documentarian is such a perfect match for his or her material, but Chris Bell, the writer/director of Bigger, Stronger, Faster, is. In exploring the steroid problem in the U.S., he doesn’t have to look further than his own family. His two brothers "” one a washed-up professional wrestler who never hit it big, and the other a high school coach and competitive powerlifter "” both have taken steroids for years and have no intentions of quitting.
Bell himself was a champion wrestler in high school, took steroids in the past, but felt too guilty to make it a habit. How he managed to escape the culture he grew up with and go to USC film school is one question that the film doesn’t explore, but lucky for us, his documentary is a wide-ranging study of our juicing culture from a unique, honest point of view: a guy who’s legitimately questioning whether steroids are even bad or not, and their implications on our culture. Bell’s presence in the film is heavy, but unlike Michael Moore‘s attention-seeking antics and constant ramblings about his hometown Flint, it actually feels like he belongs.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster doesn’t begin as a condemnation of steroids "” it takes a long time for Bell to even admit that using them is “cheating,” and even then we’re reminded of our own hypocrisies in thinking so. And after briefly learning the medical truths of steroids, we find they’re not as dangerous as a hysterical media has made them out to be, and many of their potential dangers are unknown because the studies simply haven’t been done.
But on the other side of the issue, it’s easy for Bell to condemn the steroid users he interviews: he just lets them speak. Time and time again, from his brothers to over-the-hill gym rats to athletes, we’re given mind-bogglingly transparent rationalizations for taking them: everybody else does it, so I should too. They’re safer than a lot of other drugs. I know I’m the best, and I need to take them to be the best.
Bell’s younger brother, the high school football coach, constantly claims he doesn’t have a moral issue with taking them, but hides it from their parents and flat-out lies to his high school students. Just to drive the point home, Bell then interviews some of those kids, asking if they think their coach takes steroids. “No. He said he didn’t.”
That’s not even the most heartbreaking story "” that would be the older brother. Around the time he lost a contract with the WWE, he tried to kill himself and miraculously survived. Now he’s married to a great-looking wife, has a steady job "” and still refuses to stop taking steroids, knowing he’s risking his marriage. See,
he still dreams of becoming a famous wrestler.
The two brothers are really only small parts in what turns into a large-scale look at American culture. So steroids is cheating, the film says "” but what about Tiger Woods’ Lasik eye surgery? Or sleeping in a high-altitude chamber before a bicycle race to raise your blog-oxygen level? The film goes beyond steroids to question the prevalence of drugs in non-athletic fields, too: everything from kids passing around Adderall at school to help them finish their work to musicians taking pills before orchestra concerts to help them calm down and focus. The distinction between what does and does not constitute cheating, the film argues, has become impossible to determine.
The film becomes scattershot in its second half "” the interview with Marvel creator Stan Lee seemed particularly out of nowhere "” but some detours, like the exploration of the supplement industry, are terrific. Thanks to Congressman Orrin Hatch, body-building supplement makers "” based largely in his home state of Utah "” can throw pretty much anything they want into their pills, not reveal what’s actually in them by saying it’s a secret formula, and put them on the market without FDA approval. And those Before and After photos in the commercials? They’re usually shot on the same day "” the model slouches a little, then flexes a little, and Photoshop takes care of the rest.
The film raises a lot of questions but only answers a few, which is a fine approach "” it’s a film to discuss and argue over. But its central point is terrific: “there is a clash in America,” Bell says, “between doing the right thing, and being the best.”
Movie Grade: A-
A documentary filmmaker examines the popularity of steroids in American culture by focusing on his two brothers and their experiences with different performance-enhancing drugs.