Sports Illustrated magazine addressed this issue back in March. In fact, the magazine did a special three-part article, which references this film. The film and the article follow the Congressional hearings involving steroids in baseball where men like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were investigated for their use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.
The main issue with the article is that it makes the point that steroids are not a problem that is limited to the sports world. The article argues that steroids are a larger problem, a cultural one. Sports athletes bear the brunt of the criticism and the bashing, but the magazine opines that we are living in a steroid nation.
BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER* makes the same argument that there have been a lot of misconceptions about steroid use and how the demonization of steroids may not be justified. This documentary is not only an examination of steroids in our society, but it's also a very poignant and personal autobiography of Chris Bell, a regular, normal guy who is an admitted steroid user.
What's at the heart of the problem is one of perception, self-worth, and self-esteem. Like with many people, Chris Bell blames the media and specifically action films along with action film stars. Bell proclaims that for him and his two brothers Mike and Mark Bell, action stars of the early 80s like Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were their heroes, and the ones to blame.
Bell explains how these guys and the media promoting them projected this All-American image that if you wanted to be an American male, a true American male, you had to be like these guys. These guys were well-muscled role models to whom any and everyone can look up.
Bell recounts how he was never happy with his appearance when he was younger. He and his brothers were short and pudgy. Their heroes, however, were tall and muscular. The Bell brothers couldn't change their height, but they could build their muscles, so that's what they did.
The Bell brothers became Hulkamaniacs. They obsessed over wrestling. Their uncle was a bodybuilder, so all of them instantly became familiar with a fitness gym. When Chris moved to Venice Beach, he immediately made himself a regular at Gold's Gym.
Gold's Gym, at the time before Schwarzenegger's re-election as Governor of California, was adorned with tons of half-naked photos of the former bodybuilder. Chris arrived there early in the morning and pumped iron to those photos in a futile pursuit to be like the Terminator, the Hulk, or even Rambo.
There was only one problem. Bell's heroes were false idols. It first started with the revelation that wrestling is fake. Being that the Bell brothers worshipped the World-wide Wrestling Federation, that minor detail wasn't enough to shake their faiths of their heaving-chested, bulging-bicep icons.
For Chris Bell, what made him question his religion of the muscle man is the scandal that his heroes like Hogan, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger were all steroid users. They were all drug users.
With baseball being the nation's national past time, many children's heroes include past and current hitters in the MLB. The steroid scandal that rocked the major league had many doubting them as well.
Besides Olympic stars to whom Chris Bell talks, steroids hasn't really shaken other athletic fields, but the presence of it in football or basketball could possibly be found. Charles Barkley, former NBA star, famously said that sports stars shouldn't be role models, but as the Bell brothers demonstrate, those big beefcakes and athletes are role models, so shouldn't role models be clean?
What Bell reveals is that like those role models all three of the Bell brothers started taking steroids themselves. From that point, early on, the film goes further than Sports Illustrated by making this story a first-person testimony of what someone goes through and experiences, as a result of a steroid drug.
What Bell reveals is not as partisan as one may think. Being that Bell and his brothers are steroid users, and are not really ashamed of it, one might think that they would argue for steroids, or at least try not to paint it in as horrible a light as it has been.
Bell shows evidence of how steroids have been demonized. Bell shows us clips from Senator Joe Biden to President George W. Bush, and various people in between, all of them saying how horrible steroids are.
Using the same style and level of humor as Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me (2004), Chris Bell cites the parity between the demonization of steroids and the so-called "Reefer Madness" of the 1930s.
How he does it is by breaking it down and offering statistical information and facts that doesn't make steroids seem as scary or as bad as the conclusions to which we jump. What I feared half-way through the film is that it, like the magazine article, would by proxy end up defending steroid use and bolstering the illegal possession of it.
But, Bell properly opens the discussion and includes those who make the argument that steroids are not good. Bell talks about the perception that steroids taint the integrity of the sports we admire. There is the perception it's cheating. Bell explores both sides, giving us glimpses into news headlines where steroids have been the main topic like the deaths of Chris Benoit and Taylor Hooten.
Yet, in the end, Bell brings the debate home in a touching confrontation with his mother that goes to the sole of what the whole thing is about. This is one of the best documentaries of 2008.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for thematic material
Running Time: 1 hr. and 45 mins.