Call it “Super Size Me” on steroids: Christopher Bell’s in-depth, yet intensely personal look at juice use among athletes attacks America’s body-image obsession from the other side. Pic personifies the debate by focusing on the filmmaker’s two steroid-pumping siblings, but this isn’t amateur hour with the Bell family. Helmer knows exactly what he’s doing, offering a thorough survey backed by no-nonsense interviews from every corner of the issue. More scrupulously reported than your average Michael Moore film but every bit as entertaining, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” is as commercial as documentaries come — a no-brainer to market in light of recent sports scandals.
Baseball record-breakers Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco and Olympian Marion Jones are only three of the many high-profile national heroes to fall under the cloud of steroids, but Bell’s disillusionments trace back to childhood, when such super-ripped role models as Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger fessed to injecting their way to fame.
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Bell opens with a series of rhetorical questions meant to reflect his own internal debate over the issue: Namely, why should he feel guilty about using steroids when everybody’s doing it?
And therein lies the paradox. Americans set impossible performance standards but reject the “cheating” required to achieve them (making exceptions for Viagra, Adderall, beta blockers and other non-natural aids). Bell is clearly torn on the issue of steroids, having experimented with them himself at one time (he’s fallen back on a smorgasbord of legal supplements for now).
But to better understand the alternative, he turns to his brothers: “Mad Dog” (Mike) started shooting steroids in college and found them essential to his goal of pro wrestling, while “Smelly” (Mark) takes powerlifting too seriously not to maximize his potential through artificial means. Both siblings are completely candid about their dependence on the substance.
The discussion ranges from politics to science to pop culture, implicating everyone from George W. Bush (as former owner of the Texas Rangers) to Ben Affleck (star of a “Reefer Madness”-style movie of the week). He confronts both Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis about the former’s gold-medal disqualification at the 1988 Summer Olympics, despite both runners testing positive for banned substances.
Though Bell avoids the Morgan Spurlock stunt of serving as his own guinea pig, helmer’s presence permeates the film. Whether speaking to grieving father Donald Hooton (who believes steroids drove his 17-year-old son to suicide, despite convincing evidence that anti-depressants may have been the culprit) or his own mother, he’s not afraid to ask the tough questions. The range of interviewees is staggering, and though Schwarzenegger declines to be interviewed, Bell secures a priceless one-on-one opportunity all the same.
At 106 minutes, the film is long, but never dull. Its early playfulness (augmented by retro-styled animation and the tongue-in-cheek use of tracks such as “Eye of the Tiger” and “Holding Out for a Hero”) blooms into poignant observation as the investigation takes shape.