Bigger, Stronger, Faster

We can make him better than he was
★★★★
☆
Released: 
2008
Director: 
Chris Bell
Starring: 
Chris Bell, Mark Bell, Mike Bell, Rosemary Bell
The Setup: 
An examination of steroid use in America, with special emphasis on their dangers, uses in sports, and the American culture of having to win.
Discussion: 

I was pretty jazzed about seeing this after reading the overwhelmingly positive reviews, which promised that it not only gave a balanced review of the steroid issue, but also dove into the American fascination with being a "winner." It was this last part that particularly interested me, and, as with almost all documentaries, I wished it would have gone a little further than it did. But this is still an incredibly wide-ranging documentary that is quite entertaining and worth watching.

An introduction introduces the filmmaker, Chris, and his two brothers, who go by their nicknames, "Mad Dog" and "Smelly." Both of their parents are overweight, and the boys don't want to end up like that. They all become obsessed with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies, Hulk Hogan and professional wrestling, and feel very betrayed when it is revealed that all of them had done steroids. He specifically calls out Schwarzenegger and Hogan for preaching that kids should exercise and eat right and work hard if they want to get big like them and be winners, when actually there's no way anyone could get like them if they aren't taking some sort of drug. He points out that in Rocky IV, the villain is presented as taking steroids while Rocky trains the natural way, when in fact Stallone was taking steroids during the making of the movie [and before, and after]. Chris' bitterness over this betrayal feels as fresh as ever and extends throughout the movie.

Then a little family history. The three brothers were pudgy as they grew up, then discovered bodybuilding. Mad Dog wanted more than anything to become a professional wrestler, trained and tried out for it repeatedly, but didn't make it. He then tried to kill himself. He says [quotes are not exact] "I just know that I was born to attain greatness" and seems to be left with nothing if he's going to be just an average guy. We them meet a guy who is working out at Gold's Gym [where Schwarzenegger trained] but lives in a van in the parking lot. He says some guy may have a job and a wife and house and car, but when they see that the guy who lives in his van can lift more, well, who's the winner now?

We now head into the steroid scandal in sports. I would not describe this documentary as pro-steroids so much as that it presents a fairly balanced view, and is interested in highlighting contradictions. Apparently the proof that steroids cause 'roid rage and lead to liver problems and everything they supposedly do is largely ephemeral, but you won't see any further research, because since steroids are against the law in this country, no more research can be done. Bell examines the scandal over steroid use in sports, but also exposes that several other performance-enhancers ARE allowed, so what's the difference? For example, Tiger Woods had laser vision correction, and now has better than average vision: is that fair? He demonstrates that in most areas of American life, cheating is either encouraged or at least not punished, and asks why it's okay to cheat in most areas—above all else one must WIN—but not in sports. He also observes that congress spent longer debating steroid use in sports than it did on Hurricane Katrina or the Iraq War.

He examines the way the phrase "on steroids" has entered the American lexicon as meaning "super-powerful," like showing ads for an SUV that is like a sports car on steroids, and discusses non-steroid nutritional supplements for bodybuilders. These are completely unregulated, so there could be ANYTHING in them, and none of the claims they made are, or have to be, validated. Chris talks to one famous guy who markets his own line of nutritional supplements, but who also does steroids. Chris points out that the ad implies that they guy got to look like he did through using the product, but in fact you could never look like that without using steroids. The guy says he thinks people should be smarter than to believe the claims of his ads. He also points out that many before and after shots are taken ON THE SAME DAY and just manipulated. Below is the director and a doctored image of him, taken on the same day.

So these are just a few of the plethora of really interesting questions the movie brings up. The only thing is that it is so wide-ranging and non-linear that it can start to seem a little scattered and unorganized. It ranges so quickly from the personal to the society-wide, and facts and statements whiz by so fast that once it's over, one might wonder whether this would all stand up to scrutiny if you really looked all this stuff up. I'm not saying it wouldn't—it's just that it goes by so fast that you begin to wonder. The focus of this movie is also a bit TOO wide [and it does start to seem a bit on the long side], but then again, most documentaries focus so narrowly on their subject that one is left wishing they would open the topic up wider to discuss how it fits into society at large, so I am loath to criticize this one for being too ambitious.

One disappointment was that I was hoping for a lot more on the American culture of winning at all costs, and what it does to people who just don't measure up. The movie does touch on it at several points, and perhaps that topic is large enough to support its own documentary, but I have to say I was hoping for a lot more here. There are hints—we touch on the Tanya Harding story, we have Chris' brother saying "If you're not prepared to try new things [i.e. steroids], then maybe you don't have what it takes to be a champion." He ties the American need to win with the Iraq war and other political events, but all of these just glance at the topic. But again, it is a tremendous boon to this movie that it is as wide-ranging as it is, and makes so many good connections where most documentaries try to stay on-topic, that the fact that it doesn't make all of them is only a minor complaint. Since this movie is so personal, I suspect that Bell may not have an idea for a follow-up. I would suggest a companion piece that really delves into the American culture of needing to be the winner, and how that affects the vast majority of people who turn out to be just average. Nevertheless, a very interesting, entertaining and surprisingly wide-ranging documentary.

Should you watch it: 

Yes!