Bigger, Stronger, Faster* Dir. Christopher Bell

[Magnolia Pictures; 2008]

After Hulk Hogan became the first fighter to successfully break out of Iron Shiek's patented "Camel Clutch," professional wrestling catapulted into mainstream consciousness. Posters were hung, action figures were bought, and America's obsession with heroic masculinity and physical perfection, also articulated by the likes of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, was further imprinted into the minds of impressionable youth. But we weren't just watching two chiseled actors arbitrarily battling in a ring. We were watching a fight between opposing ideologies: Hulk, the hyper-All-American good guy, defeats Shiek, an Iranian wrestler who of course played the "bad guy" role." It took this dreamy romanticism to grab the attention of the masses, but these narratives didn't hide the fact that the successes of Arnold, Sly, and Hulk hinged heavily on their steroid use.

With the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (the asterisk presumably in reference to the Barry Bonds fiasco), director Christopher Bell locates this junction between steroids and popular culture and critiques it through an exhausting amount of perspectives. He asks: "Is it still cheating if everyone's doing it?" To find out, Bell interviews politicians, celebrities, athletes, medical experts, and everyday gym-goers (many of whom have drastically varying opinions on the moral, cultural, and legal implications of steroid use), while re-contextualizing clips to the point of Reefer Madness absurdity. This examination also has a personal dimension, as the documentary's structure relies on his own family's relationship with steroids, particularly his brothers, "Mad Dog" and "Smelly." Although Bell raises doubts about the demonization of steroids, he isn't necessarily defending steroid use. Bell is simply providing context, exploring contradictions, and positing questions, which consequently opens up a can of worms.

The film thrives not on its ideological standpoint, but on the information provided. And the more information given, the more contradictions appear. It is Bell's willingness to confront these contradictions that prove most intriguing. He's asking all the right questions, and often to awkward results (take note of his interviews with Don Hooton and Henry Waxman). His inexperience shows, but it's forgivable because he's seeking the ever-elusive, constantly shifting truth, often playing devil's advocate. You feel like he's on your side when he's talking about gene-doping and hormone deficiency, the FDA and "go pills." From Schwarzenegger and Carl Lewis to the U.S. Government and the health industry, everyone is exposed as hypocrites. Even his family is heavily critiqued, with penetrating moments of honesty offered by every family member: his father, for example, calls his son a "screwup," while his brother is filmed unable to speak honestly about his steroid use in front of family.

But it can get a little muddled. The documentary assumes viewers agree that the above-mentioned celebrities are, in fact, heroes, and that the general American would aspire to look like them (or to at least aspire for "perfection"). Of all the distinctions made in the movie -- between anabolic steroids and steroids like birth control, legal and illegal drugs, competition and performance, etc. -- it's curious that Bell fails to differentiate between admiring a "hero" and yearning to look physically like that hero. I thought Hulk Hogan was the shit growing up, but I never once thought of trying to beef up like him. In reality, the extremity of the steroid use in his family is relatively unique; only after you make an intellectual jump to apply it to general body image can the signifiers of "hero" and "American" hold any weight. Essentially, the first-person narrative style of the documentary necessitates that the audience surrender to this premise and nod to its most superficial aspects, never mind that these "heroes" were often fighting racial caricatures and reaffirming stereotypical masculinity.

Despite the shaky premise, it's clear that Bell isn't on a quest to place blame on any particular facet of American life. In fact, if he points the finger at all, it's pointed everywhere -- popular culture, politics, health industry, media representation -- all of which he inevitably calls a "side-effect of being American." Bell is obviously dissecting a specific version of being "American," one that stresses the superficial, but his rhetorical tricks prove effective at blurring the definitions and focusing on an impulse. The movie actually plays a lot like a Michael Moore documentary (it comes from the producers of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11), with quick pacing, savvy editing, humorous contexts, and use of ironic music. Although Bell's arguments are more thorough and better-researched than Moore's, his points are less refined, showing perhaps inadvertently that tackling such a complex topic can only find pseudo-resolution in generalization and ambiguity.

Indeed, the documentary isn't perfect. There is no international perspective, a very minimal role for women, and it sidesteps overarching themes dealing with capitalism, technology, and what it means to be "natural" (it is assumed steroid use isn't "natural," but later his father mentions how "cheating" is human nature). It also remains shortsighted in its timeline of performance-enhancing drugs. The film hits its lowest point when Bell interviews Gregg Valentino, a pro-steroid gym-rat, with BBQ sauce plastered all over his face. It's as unforgiving as Moore showing a clip of Wolfowitz licking his comb in Fahrenheit 9/11: embarrassment and humiliation for the sake of entertainment.

In the end, though, Bigger, Stronger, Faster* is an incisive documentary. By adopting a mainstream documentary style to show how steroid use is symptomatic of a larger problem, Bell shifts the argument away from biased media representation and loaded politics to a family still dealing with the contradictory forces inherent in steroid use. That most insight in the film comes from non-"experts" provides ample evidence that Bell is directing the camera into the right places.

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