Everything you thought you knew about steroids is wrong. Everything you suspected about the demoralizing effect that the media’s obsession with perfection has on our psyches is true. BIGGER STRONGER FASTER not only makes the case for both those propositions, it also demonstrates how they are inextricably entwined in the fabric of the American consciousness. Hence the subtitle, THE SIDE EFFECTS OF BEING AMERICAN. Filmmaker Chris Bell is not being flippant. By the end of his enlightening and infuriating documentary, the culture of winning has been decisively dissected and what is exposed isn’t very pretty, but it is undeniably honest.
Bell starts with his own family. A middle child with two brothers both of whom were bigger, he grew up in the ideal nuclear family with good parents, a comfortable life, and a dream to be like his heroes, Hulk Hogan, Rocky, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Convinced by the rhetoric each spouted that all he needed was hard work to become like them, he trained and by the time he was in high school, he was a power-lifter and one of the strongest in the country. His brothers also excelled the older playing division 1 college football, the younger also becoming a power lifter and going on to coach high school football. Solid, family men with the American values and a dirty little secret. They took steroids in order to compete because everyone else did, also in order to compete. And, as it turned out, so did Hulk, Rocky and Arnold.
Bell neatly demolishes the horror stories that have grown up around steroid use, the ‘roid rage and the deadly side effects. As John Romano, senior editor of Muscular Development magazine asks, “Where are the bodies?” A good question and by the time Bell has finished, the question becomes why a drug that is used medicinally to treat injuries and keep people with HIV alive has become so vilified. The research fails to support that view, something that the respected physicians and scientists who appear point out. Cut to Senator Joe Biden during a Senate hearing on the subject being outraged that steroids have corrupted the purity of baseball. Cut to Representative Henry Waxman, an equally outraged legislator, being asked by Bell how the money set aside for steroid awareness education has been spent and replying, with admirable candor, that he doesn’t know.
The issue of performance enhancement takes many surprising turns from there. Beta-blockers that cure musician’s stage fright, the miracle drug that lets students increases focus when studying, Tiger Woods’ eye surgery, and the amphetamines that are standard issue for Air Force Pilots. The doc doesn’t draw a line about what is and isn’t fair, rather it raises questions that don’t have the easy answers American demand.
Taking potshots at the inconstancies of national drug policy is almost too easy, though Bell makes it both enormously entertaining as he exposes the abundance of absurdities involved. But the film uses that as the starting point for a larger consideration, one that encompasses a national character that worships a winner and relies on the quick fix and the pipe dream to achieve that status. The public, the media, the politicians, the sports regulatory bodies all disparage the use of steroids, but money-spending droves turn out in order to see the athletes pumped up from them, something not unnoticed by the people who run the front office. Professional or amateur, results on the field trump rules, a point brought home when Dr. Wade Exum, the chief of drug testing for the US Olympic Committee from 1991 to 2000, shares letters to Olympic champion Carl Lewis advising the athlete that he had failed his drug test. Lewis himself appears explaining that his ingestion of the banned substance had been inadvertent, while his competitor at the 1988 games explains that his own failed drug test that stripped him of his gold medal (it went to Lewis) had less to do with following the rules than the politics of having a Canadian beat an American. Sour grapes, probably, but it’s hard to dismiss his claims outright in the face of the documentation.
It’s not just the playing field. In one of the film’s many great visual aids, he takes on how the American male body image has changed in the last 40 years by talking to psychologist who sums it up by showing the evolution of G.I. Joe during that time. The action figure’s muscles bulge, the abs become cut, and the physique as a whole becomes as unattainable for the boys who play with him as Barbie’s is for the little girls whose self-esteem takes the same sort of hits by having that ideal imprinted on her at a tender age.
BIGGER STRONGER FASTER is fast-paced yet dense with paradigm-shifting observations and an unassuming intelligence that isn’t afraid to indulge in a little horseplay of its own in order to make a point. Yet, it wisely never strays far from the personal, giving this film as much heart as it has smarts. Bell, our everyman guide, curious but non-confrontational, unselfconsciously recounts his difficulties in coming to terms with his heroes letting him down. He and his brothers and his parents are painfully open with the struggles that they have had, not with the steroids per se, but with the pressure the brothers felt to succeed, to be anything but average in a culture where winning isn’t the most important thing it’s the only thing. He’s found the universal in the specific, making it impossible to think of a gold medal, or a protein shake in quite the same way ever again.