I was a scrawny kid growing up, but I never idolized the muscle-bound types. Bodybuilding was always a bore, I hated the He-Man cartoon, I didn’t worship Arnold Schwartzenegger or Sylvester Stallone and I never took professional wrestling seriously. Ordinarily I wouldn’t be interested in a documentary about three Hulk Hogan idolizing boys from New Jersey who grew up to be steroid juiced bodybuilders, but Bigger, Stronger, Faster surprised me. It is more than it appears to be and it deserves to be seen.
Subtitled The Side Effects of Being American, the documentary begins as filmmaker Christopher Bell (also a bodybuilder) explores what drives his two siblings Mike and Mark to use steroids. Ultimately however, it becomes something much bigger and more important. It’s a story both personal and universal that examines the nature of hero worship, of what it means to be a winner, and of the meaning of the American Dream itself.
The first 20 minutes of the film focused on the Bells growing up and on bodybuilding. Though it was laying the necessary groundwork for the emotional core of the story, this first portion left me cold. The Bells’ hopes and dreams seemed so far removed from my own that I had little interest in them or in the lengths to which they went to attain success. As the story progressed however, the scope broadened. In the end, the debatable health effects of steroid use aren’t the issue; they’re just a symptom of the drive for success at any cost and that drive is finally what Bigger, Stronger, Faster is all about.
Growing up in America (and probably many other places as well), we’re taught that if we work hard enough and apply ourselves, we can be anything we want. A person can be living on the street one day and in a penthouse the next, or so goes the fantasy behind the American Dream. It’s a lie but even an aging, fading bodybuilder living in a van outside of Gold’s Gym in Venice, California believes it and repeats it.
What happens though, when a person’s idea of the American Dream fails? Are they to start pumping themselves full of chemicals to get an edge? What risks are you prepared to take in order to be the best and, more importantly, what does being the best even mean? At one point in the film, Christopher asks his brother Mike “What’s wrong with being normal?” It’s an excellent question for which Mike doesn’t have an answer.
What about our sports heroes who are lectured by Congress to be good role models for children by not using steroids, but who are pressured by spectator demand to be bigger, stronger and faster? In a clip from The Simpsons used in the film, Lisa Simpson, the idealistic one, asks Mark McGwire to answer allegations of steroid use. The beefy home run hitter replies that he could talk about that or he could hit home runs. The crowd roars in the affirmative for the home runs.
For a first time documentarian, Bell is surprisingly effective. He has a folksy, amateur interview style similar to Michael Moore, but he never grandstands, pulls snarky stunts or seeks to embarrass his subjects. He asks probing questions, but he’s gentle and non-judgmental. Also unlike Moore, he seems genuinely interested in finding answers rather than establishing an agenda and he’s careful to approach his subject from as many angles as he can find.
At times, Bell does travel a little too far afield from his subject. There’s a long segment on the poorly regulated health supplement industry for example that is interesting and probably worthy of a documentary by itself, but it feels only of tangential value here. Bell also raises more questions than he answers, but they’re thought provoking questions about body image, self-esteem, competition and the nature of success that need to be asked. Bell seems to be the right guy to be asking them and one hopes that Bigger, Stronger, Faster isn’t just a one shot deal. I’d like to see him tackle other subjects with the same humor, curiosity and sensitivity on display here.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster. USA 2008. Written and directed by Christopher Bell. 1 hour 46 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for thematic material involving drugs, language, some sexual content and violent images. 4 stars (out of 5)
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