Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (2008)
Chris Bell came from a roughly normal family in Poughkeepsie, New York. He and his brothers were a little chubby but saw weight lifting as their ticket to success. In the 1980s, Bell and his brothers idolized muscle-bound heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, and Sylvester Stallone. Muscles were the answer for the Bells. Chris Bell became a teenage weightlifting sensation and moved out to California to follow his dreams at Gold’s Gym, just like Arnold. Bell’s older brother, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, actually had a career as a professional wrestler on the national televised stage, though he was always the one getting beat up. Bell’s younger brother, Mark “Smelly” Bell, could lift hundreds of pounds. Both Mad Dog and Smelly have been using steroids for years. Chris Bell decided to make a documentary that examines both his family’s interest in steroids and the culture that bigger is better. Bigger Stronger, Faster* *The Side Effects of Being an American is that final product, and it radiates with sadness and anger.
Don’t let the subject matter fool you. This is less an expose over steroids then it is a penetrating and somewhat sobering look into the intensely competitive culture in America to “be the best” and shuttle the rest. Bell uses a clip of Patton addressing his recruits, saying, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” Bell interviews a wide variety of subjects, from doctors on both sides of the issue, and when he gets to sports fans the general line of thinking is that steroids are awful, unless, that is, they can help my team. If the dominant culture is pushing athletes to be the best that they can be, or else, then is it any wonder that taking steroids would seem customary? Should we as a nation chastise athletes that we, as a nation, pressured into juicing up to attain the glory we expect, nay, demand from our competitors? It seems like the same folks that are shaking their fists and bemoaning the impure state of athletics are shirking their own responsibility for contributing to the toxic mindset to win at all costs. In many ways, bodybuilding and muscle-bound athletes can fall prey to the same distorted mentality as those suffering under anorexia and bulimia. Both groups have significantly dissatisfied body images, one wants to continue getting smaller and the other wants to continue getting larger. Bell interviews Gregg Valentino, who has biceps that looks like five-pound sacks full of ten pounds of potatoes. He says the ladies are repulsed but the men come up to him in awe. Mad Dog says that he knows he was “destined for better things” and cannot find any sliver of satisfaction in living a normal life. His brother points out that Mad Dog has a good job, a loving family, and a wife who goes along with all of the emotional turmoil but still supports her man. Can’t he be happy with just being who he is?
When the film shies away from Bell’s personal connection to the topic, the movie isn’t as compelling, though it is rather informative. Steroids have been painted as a scourge; however, the scientific evidence doesn’t bare this out. In the end, anabolic steroids are a supplement and have risks just like any other supplement or drug on the market. Bell has plenty of data to argue that legal drugs, like tobacco and alcohol, kill tens of thousands more a year than steroids (I think the doc informs that the yearly deaths attributed to steroids is around 3). The reason our society is so misinformed about steroids is because of heightened media hysteria and the likes of overly anxious lawmakers. Bell speaks with clear disdain when he reports that in 2004 Congress spent eight days covering the topic of steroids and grilling baseball stars; that eight days was longer than Congress spent deliberating the Iraq War, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and over health care. When Congress covered the steroid topic in the 1980s they interviewed heads of national public health offices, and those wise experts stated that the health risks from steroids had been exaggerated. So Congress just ignored their testimony. I get it, steroids serve as a boogeyman because few actually know what it does or, frankly, what is actually is. There are many different kinds of steroids, some of which are used all the time with societal approval, like cortisone shots intent to aid inflammation. Where people seem to have issues is over anabolic steroids, which is an extra boost of testosterone. Bell points out that the side effects of steroids are almost always completely reversible after the user stops taking the drug. How many other drugs, legal and illegal, can make a similar claim?
A very interesting side step the film takes is over the issue of legal dietary supplements. The dietary supplement industry does not require FDA approval to sell products. This means that the FDA must prove that a product is unsafe to take it off the shelf, rather than the more traditional approach where the drug company must prove that their drug is safe before selling it to the masses. It should also be no wonder then that the supplements that people buy in giant bottles at health food megastores are likely not much more than placebos, if you’re lucky (one supplement package advertised its “new legal formula”). Bell hires a few illegal immigrants and concocts his own dietary supplement with rice powder. He bottles it, labels it as “The Juice,” and can sell it for a gigantic profit margin, and it’s all legal.
Is performance-enhancement just apart of being an American and living out the American dream? Tiger Woods got laser eye surgery and can now see better than 20/20, so is that an acceptable performance enhancer? What about the United State’s fighter pilots who regularly are prescribed “go pills” to boost their energy levels? It’s suitably alarming to discover that the United States is the only country to make it mandatory for its fighter pilots to take amphetamines. Of course not everything Bell touches upon as performance-enhancing drugs measures up credibly, like when he mentions beta-blockers for people with performance anxiety. I don’t think tamping down anxiety is akin to enhancing performance since it merely allows the performer to perform with what they already have. Bell’s documentary has loads more questions than answers, but the best part of the film is that it doesn’t hide from contradictions but instead magnifies them and asks for an ongoing debate.
Bell’s film is wide-ranging, lucid, and unexpectedly funny, but the most compelling moments occur when Bell looks at his own family history. Both of his brothers will likely be life-long steroid users because they feel that it doesn’t give them an edge but evens the playing field. Mike’s little brother, Smelly, is not content to go from lifting 700 pounds to 600 pounds. Neither brother has the courage to open up to loved ones about the steroid use. Smelly teaches teen boys and they idolize him, quoting his encouraging assertions that the kids don’t need drugs to go places. The hypocrisy is sad and I wonder what Smelly’s kids will think once they catch the documentary. Bell’s mother is brought to tears trying to determine where she feels she went wrong as a parent. Two of her boys are rampant steroid users and have equated muscles with self-importance, but it’s the admission that Bell himself once tried steroids that shatters her. When Bell also enlightens his mother that her own brother was the source of steroids then she just shuts down. She pleads with her son to stop because she can only take too much. Bell was brought up to believe that cheating is wrong and inherently un-American, and yet the system is practically rigged to reward cheaters. Carl Lewis and other 1988 U.S. Olympians actually tested positive for banned supplements but were given a pass, as the Olympic Committee blamed the results on “inadvertent use.”
Bigger, Stronger, Faster is a clear-headed and entertaining movie that challenges the audience to reconsider its feelings over steroids. The film is informative and presents counter arguments and thankfully plays out multiple sides to controversial and complicated issues. By the end of the film, Bell isn’t necessarily pro-‘roids but asking that we better scrutinize the culture that pushes for greatness at any cost. Human beings willingly destroy their bodies out of a desire to simply forever be better. When perfection is adopted as the norm then it’s no wonder that millions of Americans will never be remotely satisfied with whom they are. Bell encounters a 50-year-old body builder at the gym he works at. This man is packed with muscle but he says he’s forever “in training” and still waiting for his big break, whatever that may be. He currently lives in his car, but he justifies his plight by saying that if he can out-lift and out-bench others then he’s the winner. This man could not be a more perfect symbol of the price of winning at all costs. The asterisk in the film’s title is what truly tells all.
Nate’s Grade: B+