June 12, 2008

REVIEW: Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (A)

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.

I Loved:
+ 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...

I Liked:
+ 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.

I Disliked:
- 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.

I Hated:
- 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.


  1. Christ, Dan - how many movies do you see? You seem to really be on a tear...

    I'd like to see this, but I don't believe it's playing here yet (hmmm...MSP sure does seem to have a better indie scene than Phoenix - embarrasing considering its size).

    My thoughts on steroids have become akin to my thoughts on most drugs - legalize 'em all, let the freaks pump themselves up, shrink themselves down, and die young. It's their own doing, so who really cares? I've been accused of being heartless, but whatever happened to personal responsibility? Sure, there's the "what about the kids?" aspect, but anyone old enough to inject themselves with a dirty needle full of oil ought to know what they're getting themselves into...

  2. All too often with documentaries (and you know my limitations in this area better than anybody) I read the subject matter and I'm instantly turned off.

    I suppose I should've learned my lesson with Young@Heart when I skipped the LA Film Festival screening. Well, I didn't because I quickly dismissed Bigger, Stronger, Faster as well. A bunch of muscle heads jacked up on steroids is seemingly of zero interest to me, yet it turns out everyone loves it.

    Hopefully it's still playing here in LA this weekend. If so, I aim to check it out.

  3. Fletch - I work for a child advocacy organization, and children get involved with steroids many times because of poor body image. Bullies teasing slightly built boys can send these kids looking for--and finding--steroids to enhance their appearance. At that age, they don't care about long-term effect; they just want to fit in and not be teased. But steroids do seem to interrupt normal growth, though studies are still vague about how much damage is caused. Steroids have also been positively linked to adolescent suicides.

    I agree that an adult should have some right to use steroids, though I hate the idea of having to support healthcare costs if there are permanent effects (same feeling as with cigarettes for me). Kids may seem old enough to make these decisions, but they're really not.

  4. Marilyn - having them be illegal doesn't seem to be working much then, does it? I think you just proved my point.

    It's all about education, education and education, with some regulation.

    Don't forget - smokers may rise your health care burden, but the tax they cough up funds schools, healthcare, tax rebates, etc., etc. According to one website, $16 billion paid so far this year.

  5. Dude - Great review. I didn't even know about this movie, but now I definitely want to see it.

  6. Fletch - I agree that communication from parents and doctors to children is extremely important. And I don't agree that making them illegal is futile. When I was an adolescent, I was terrified of breaking the law (still am, pretty much). I bet I wasn't the only one.

    As for the taxes on cigarettes paying for health care, oh, how naive. Those taxes are paying for the war in Iraq, earmarks, pet projects, etc. That money isn't going into the healthcare system (I used to write about that, too).

  7. My point is that those taxes pay for a lot while you're worried about your health care burden. I'm well aware of earmarks and corruption, though of course I do believe that a percentage of those monies are going towards healthcare and prevention - just not nearly as much as was intended when all that taxing started...but then dollar signs appeared in all their eyes.

  8. Fletch, answer: way too many, and not nearly enough...

    I recommend catching this one if it makes it down to AZ. I'm a little surprised it hasn't by now, but maybe keep an eye out.

    Craig, honestly, I was wavering for about 2 days on this one, and pretty much regretting my decision to go as I was sitting down. But then it worked. It's not that I had low expectations - I just didn't think there was a lot to talk about. I was wrong.

    Thanks, Sauer - I really think you'll enjoy this one.

    Regarding the legal issues - well I'll just say that Bell does discuss its use by children, and he does go to Plano, TX to interview the father of Taylor Hooton, who committed suicide a few years ago after taking steroids - and a lot of anti-depressants. Bell's brother, Mark, is a high school football coach, but he doesn't tell his students he juices and hearing them talk about how pure they think he is leaves you really disturbed. It's a really interesting moment. As Mark says, and Bell kind of leaves it here - he thinks they're fine to use for adults, just not for kids and teens.

    Regarding the legality, well that's explored in adequate detail as well. It's sickeningly easy to get them online or at your local gym. Bell goes to a chiropractor (who he doesn't know) and legally gets a prescription for testosterone. You'll see how he does it, but it's way too easy.

    The bigger question for the future might not be the legality of steroids, but what the next stage in human modification will be - and Bell shows us: gene transplants.

  9. Dadgummit Daniel, how do you get a hold of all these films? I don't get this one until July 25th, and Yangtze, which you saw ages ago, comes out three weeks after this one. Have you sold your soul to the devil to get a private theater underneath your house next to the Indian burial grounds?

  10. Twin Cities is the NY/LA of the Midwest!

  11. er...I guess that would be Twin Cities are...

    I went to college, I swear.

  12. This certainly does look interesting, glad to see you liked it!

    It is a really interesting modern day Social-Darwinian issue really...ethics in business, sports, etc. It all really ties in.

  13. Hehe, it's a moment in time, Evan, what can I say. The number of releases and screenings around here has been surprising to me, too. No soul selling, but a lot of time and money - though fortunately less money than LA/NY. And as much as we have, Craig, I'm sure Marilyn isn't hurting for film choices down in Chicago.

    Interesting point, RC. Chris Bell doesn't really go too far outside of the sphere of athletics and fitness, but his "consequences of being American" tagline would suggest so. That's actually something I would have liked to see him explore a little bit further - how and if we as culture are really that obsessed with power "by any means necessary". He's in a unique position to ask that question, but I think it was probably best for him, in this case, to focus mostly on steroids and the athletic world.

  14. I'm still processing my thoughts on this one in anticipation of a possible review, but I wanted to stop in and thank you for being the final to getting me to catch this movie.

    I would've liked it all tied up into a neater package, but there is so much to like about it and it left me thinking about many different things. Hard to argue with a documentary that does that.

  15. Thanks, Craig. I'm glad you've seen some of these stronger documentaries in recent weeks. It was no Young@Heart; like you, I felt Bell didn't fully make the connection he wanted to make between America and muscles, but it nonetheless was a pretty well-researched, honest, and illuminating little movie that was more entertaining than it had any right to be.

  16. Great review! I saw this film in April at Hot Docs here in Toronto and it was one of my faves of the festival. I'm glad to hear it continues to be well received.

    One note, I'm pretty sure in reference to this comment:

    "Seeing how ridiculously easy it is to produce and legally distribute unregulated drugs."

    It was the nutritional supplements that floored me. Completely unregulated. Yikes.

  17. Thanks for stopping by, Shannon. This one really snuck up on me. As I've said, I wasn't expecting anywhere near this level of filmmaking.

    You're right - by "unregulated drugs" I really meant the supplements that he makes in his kitchen. I thought that was one of the best scenes in the movie - with a great punchline about legality of doing it...


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