Bigger, Stronger, Faster (2008)
Directed by: Christopher Bell
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Run Time: 106 minutes
Do we really need a documentary on steroids? The story is all over the news. Right and wrong seem pretty clear. Except for some issues of boring science, what needs to be said? Can’t Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and the other cheaters and liars just be sent to prison for perjury and written off with the contempt they deserve? Actually, no, because so much of what we assume about steroids is both wrong and begs all sorts of complicated ethical issues. And Chris Bell has figured out a way to make the story laugh-out-loud funny, morally puzzling, and emotionally gripping.
Bell makes this work by juggling four balls with remarkable dexterity. He personalizes the story by talking about his own family where two brothers use steroids and he does not. He delves into the science to suggest that steroids are misunderstood and probably should not be banned. He raises ethical and moral issues concerning steroid use, such as “unfair” advantages in sports. And he places the entire discussion in the context of an American society that, when it comes to sports, the economy, and war wants to be the biggest, strongest, and fastest.
Chris Bell is the middle son of a middle class family in Poughkeepsie, New York. As youngsters, all three of the boys were overweight and not especially popular. But then, inspired by heroes Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and especially professional wrestlers like Hulk Hogan, the boys began to work out with weights. Serious work outs. And in no time they went from being “losers” to being a force in the school. The oldest brother, “Mad Dog”, became the first person from their high school to earn a football scholarship to a Division I college. Chris and his younger brother “Smelly” competed successfully in weight lifting and wrestling. But while Chris stayed away from steroids, after high school both of his brothers became big time users, and remain so to this day. Chris explores why he alone stayed away from them, why his brothers did not, and the positive and negative impact of steroids on their lives.
But aren’t steroids bad for you? Certainly not if you are someone with any illness that creates problems of bone density or a host of other effects. Moreover, the preponderance of medical evidence suggests that most adults who take them under a doctor’s supervision have few health threatening consequences. Certainly, adolescents can do themselves real harm on them. But the medical verdict, at this point, would not justify outlawing them for adults. Bell’s film dives deeply into these questions without the science being boring or beyond us.
As for the enormous competitive advantage that steroids provide, here too the issues begin to muddle. For one thing, why are some advantages allowed and not others? Cyclists riding in the Alps are denied the use of drugs that enhance the body’s ability to assimilate oxygen at high altitudes. But some cyclists simply sleep each night in a sealed tent that is pumped full of oxygen. That gives their bodies the same edge as the drugs, but is an accepted practice. Why? Moreover, as we enter an era of cloning and genetic manipulation, steroids may be one of the least significant chemical enhancements available for athletes. And if we were all to compete on a level playing field with the bodies we were born with, why should athletes be allowed to wear glasses? And if you think glasses are fine, what about corrective eye surgery that not only removes the need for glasses but gives you better than 20-20 vision? Certainly a huge advantage in many sports. Should we forbid eye surgery for athletes? Banning steroids absent a full discussion of what constitutes legitimate performance enhancement seems a simple and thoughtless reflex.
The most enjoyable aspect of Bell’s documentary is the social context. He has mined television, film, news, and advertising archives for wonderful footage of America’s increasing obsession with bulking up. We see how the G.I. Joe doll of the 1960’s was a puny “girly-man” compared to today’s model. It becomes clear that movie stars and athletes have been taking steroids for decades, even some who have long been seen as clean, like America’s greatest track star, Carl Lewis. The U.S. Air Force is the only one in the world that allows its pilots to use uppers and other drugs while in combat. And why all this love of steroid enhanced bodies? In a clip from The Simpsons, Lisa asks baseball slugger Mark McGwire if he uses steroids. He responds that either he can tell her the truth about his physique or continue to hit a ton of baseballs very, very far. The citizens of Springfield cheer for more long hits.
Bell’s film is not a brief for steroid use, and he shows an array of problems associated with them. Beyond medical problems, he has an eye and ear for the emotionally unsettling. Younger brother Smelly uses them regularly, but he also coaches high schoolers whom he counsels to “just say no.” And several of the students talk about how his “example” has inspired them to live clean. We cringe and wonder what they will think when they see this film.
Bell studied filmmaking at USC, yet he also went to school on Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11) and Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me). But whatever the influences of various leading lights of modern social comment documentaries, Bell has his own style. He wants to shake up our preconceptions, but offers no simple solutions. He has a feel for outrageous banalities in the culture, but as an affectionate critique. And the light he shines on his own family is both unsparing and loving. Bigger, Stronger, Faster is not just an impressive first film, it’s an impressive film.