Kevin's Review: Bigger, Stronger, Faster* - A Documentary on Steroids
by Kevin Powers
June 7, 2008
We're all familiar with the saying, "Cheaters never prosper." That's an adage easy enough to apply to taking tests in school, but not for taking anabolic steroids. On one hand, Olympians are stripped of their medals for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, yet on the other, one of the most well-known users of steroids is the Governor of California. If steroids use really is cheating, then Arnold cheated his way straight to the top. The same applies for the ass-kicking American icons Hulk Hogan and Sylvester Stallone who used steroids during the pivotal parts of their professional careers in the '80s and early '90s.
That period was an especially impressionable time for many guys of today who thought that's what it meant to be American, including Chris Bell. As a young, doughy boy who was caught up in this veneer of American bravado, Bell decides to put his confusion and questioning out there in an intensely personal documentary that is long overdue. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* is a flawless, genuine depiction of one man who has orbited the world of steroids most of his life, and who questions whether the drug is incredibly immoral or incredibly American. (The asterisk in the title pertains to the film's tagline, "The side effects of being American.")
Bell and his backwards hat and cargo shorts humbly interviews everyone from users to coaches to congressmen trying to understand the intense stigma associated with steroids. The drug is certainly not as caustic as cocaine or meth, yet it's gotten the ire of Congress (e.g. all the hearings surrounding steroids in baseball). Unlike other drugs, steroids are used to gain a clear advantage in competitive sports and somehow that sours the basic idea of integrity, winning, and what is to be American. But as Bell intricately points out, performance enhancing methods, and even traditional anabolic steroids, have and continue to pervade society. If a professional cyclist sleeps in an oxygen chamber to increase his red blood cells, is that really any different than blood doping? The result is the same. In Bell's documentary, steroids and confounding hypocrisy share the screen equally.
Balancing the the various eye-opening moments, including a particularly baffling scene with Congressman Henry Waxman (a key player in the baseball hearings), are smooth, unprompted moments of comedy. Some of the characters in this space are simply quite laughable. It's also pretty easy to pull off a chuckle or two when arguments against steroids are juxtaposed against reality - some are just ridiculously alarmist.
Where the film really shines, however, is in depicting Bell's family. In additional to his own experience, Bell's brothers, Mike (aka "Mad Dog") and Mark (aka "Smelly") provide a healthy dose of material used in the documentary. Both are avid, longterm users of the drugs. For one, it's the chance to be anything but average and for the other its simply as natural as beer. Their own stories highlight very poignantly the collision of steroids' right and wrong, bringing the topic down to a very relatable level and out of the clouds of contradicting policies and media spin.
Whether or not to take steroids is a question that most serious athletes will ask themselves at some point in their life. It's an uncomfortable question, because somewhere in the thick of the research, opinions and hyperbole is a very real and enduring sense of guilt. But should we feel guilty, considering the proliferation of steroidal analogs, the celebrity it has helped foster, and its contribution to the historical idea of the American male. Bell sets up these questions and musings in wonderfully objective (mostly) fashion. He doesn't present a definitive answer, but rather welcomes us into his mind and his own struggle to understand.