My cousins, siblings and I would play with the He-Man action figures, imitating the wrestling moves and postures of WWF: body slams, clotheslines and flips. We would fully embroil our minds with those violent fantasies that are particularly masculine and concurrently childish. In these ways we had a very similar childhood to the Bell brothers who feature in Christopher Bell's debut documentary-with the significant exception of the obsessive body-building and steroid use. Bigger Stronger Faster* is an entertaining and revealing documentary about steroid use and its intersection with one family.
In delving into the culture and discourse of steroid use, Bell's argument is not complete. Instead it is episodic, digressive and not entirely persuasive in its puerile defence of steroid use: What's the harm? Everyone does it.
Yet nary a minute goes by without some interesting insight that sometimes explosively confirms our suspicions and at other times completely upends how we generally think about things. One minute he is exposing the unregulated health supplement industry, revealing the sham before-and-after picture on the labels. The next he is embarrassing a senator who spearheaded the legal attacks on steroid use. It's all delivered with that faux-innocence that Michael Moore first mastered, and hits with the same humor, relying on the rich source material available for plunder.
The documentary triggers the now familiar discomfort that accompanies intimate revelations in personal narrative. That the two Bell brothers are users makes for compelling movie-making and an insightful thread in the narrative. But it also trips into thorny terrain. Smelly, the younger Bell, coaches in a high school where he outwardly extols the virtues of fair play and rebuffs the use of performance-enhancing drugs. There are even clips of his students declaring that he's clean and natural. Likewise, he promises to stop using to his worried wife so to assuage any complication with his fertility. But then he admits to camera he will probably resume soon after.
These revelations must certainly have had reverberations after the film was made. But the hurt and fear in the faces of his family as they speak about the steroid in their lives is an intentionally subversive counterpoint.
The film succeeds superbly in examining the masculine anxieties of an American psyche fed by a society that esteems those values even as it ostensibly bans steroids. Its thesis is concisely stated in its subtitle-The Side Effects of Being American. But of course, this isn't an exclusively American phenomenon. Tied tightly to many nations' self-image is that muscular avatar embodied by an athletic ideal.
And as the documentary points out, the use of steroids began with Olympian athletes of the opposing Cold War superpowers. One has to wonder if the expressed Olympian ideals about fraternity and sportsmanship hide the more base reality (as Bell's informants claim) of countries engaging in a national-level pissing-contest of male egos.
Now, with the Cold War over, the US still earns the lion's share of medals but China is closing fast and would dearly love to top the medals table at this year's Olympics. It is discomforting to think that the urge to be bigger, faster and stronger is not simply a side-effect of being an American, but of a human of any nationality.
BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER*
Director: Christopher Bell
2008. PG-13. 1hr 45min.