Background: For those of us who are avid sports fans, the news on steroids is a few years and a few thousand SportsCenters old by now. There just can't be too many fans still willing to suspend any suspicion that their favorite player in their favorite sport hasn't at one time juiced up. Picking up the conversation where the U.S. Congressional hearings left off is Chris Bell, a USC film school grad who decided to make his first documentary feature about America's obsession with being Bigger, Stronger, Faster*. Bell, a former weightlifter, knows the subject all too well - his brothers have taken anabolic steroids for half their lives in their unsuccessful attempts at careers in wrestling, football, and weightlifting.
Synopsis : Chris Bell and his two brothers grew up in the 80's in Poughkeepsie, NY, idolizing Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, naively assuming one could look like them from simply pumping iron. His older brother, Mike, wised up and started using anabolic steroids as a college football player and, later, as an aspiring professional wrestler. His younger brother, Mark, started juicing to help him keep pace in competitive weightlifting. Stuck in the middle, Chris tried to stay clean during the more than 10 years he was involved in weightlifting. He dabbled once or twice in steroids but now sticks to supplements and otherwise legal performance enhancers. Unsure of whether steroids were actually doing as much damage to his brothers as popular opinion would suggest, Bell sets out to investigate for himself the history and impact of the uniquely American habit (so he suggests) of puffing up our bodies beyond recognition. He leaves no stone unturned and almost no question unasked, but as he learns more about the wide reach and impact of steroids, his own ideas about them become even more conflicted.
+ Bell's intensely personal focus on his own family. The scene where his mother discusses human creation is one of the most honest and heartwrenching moments this year.
+ Bell's wise decision to interview so many different people involved with the steroids issue - pro athletes, amateur weightlifters, doctors, professors, coaches, nutritional experts, an AIDS patient, parents, a homeless gym rat living in the Venice Beach Gold's Gym parking lot, former Olympians, classical musicians, lawyers, porn stars, drug makers, models, fighter pilots, toy makers, magazine photographers, legislators, and more.
+ "It's like (blank) on steroids."
+ That Bell didn't try too hard to drive a particular agenda. Everytime you thought he was trying to close the deal on something, he countered it with different evidence. In other words, he upheld his responsibility as a documentarian. Calling Michael Moore...
+ Bell's asking of the tough questions - he was honest, fair, and unintimidated. It's not often that a filmmaker actually asks the same questions that you're mulling over in your head.
+ Ben Affleck's "roid rage" moment. That's the toughest acting he's had to do since...ever.
- The somewhat weak development of steroid use existing as "a consequence of being American." Nice idea, but it just wasn't fully flushed out. And bringing the Russians into it doesn't help that thesis, either.
- Seeing how ridiculously easy it is to produce and legally distribute unregulated drugs.
- That Mike Bell's life has been so utterly and completely defined by his anabolic steroid use, a fact which he readily admits but is unable to overcome due to his addiction to them.
- The moment when Bell's local Congressman, the U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (yes, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee), let slip the fact that he didn't know the legal drinking age in the United States. The look on Bell's face was priceless, and I actually would have loved this scene - if not for the fact that Waxman (D-CA) is one of the most prominent and influential members in the U.S. House.
Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5
Total: 28/30= 93% = A
Last Word: See Bigger, Stronger, Faster* and marvel at two things: 1.) The honesty with which Chris Bell has made this documentary, and 2.) the true complexity surrounding the implications of, and the reasons for, the use of steroids and performance enhancers in so many corners of American culture. Bell is more Morgan Spurlock than he is Michael Moore, but there's a sincerity and almost kindness to his approach that both of those men lack. As such, I'm more open than I was before regarding the steroids issue, even if I didn't fully get the "America" connection he was attempting to make. I don't accept them as "right" or fair necessarily, but I do realize that the issue is quite a bit larger than just some baseball players hitting home runs. Is it cheating? My first instinct used to be "Absolutely." Now, I'm forced to consider - What is "cheating"? And if everyone is using them, where does the advantage begin and end? What about non-sporting uses? How are we as a society enabling and encouraging body manipulation? To explore these questions with an open mind and a lot of humor is an impressive achievement for Chris Bell's first feature-length documentary, and the incredibly positive reviews of Bigger, Stronger, Faster* are well deserved in my opinion. It's honest filmmaking - on steroids.