Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, the directorial debut of Chris Bell, is a remarkably entertaining, wide-ranging, and reasoned look at anabolic steroid use in America that mostly avoids the grandstanding of Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore. It affirms arguments made by gym rats for years that have largely fallen on deaf ears, even among traditional champions of civil liberties, that there is insufficient evidence of serious harms stemming from steroid use to justify their criminalization.
Now in their 30s, Chris and his brothers Mike and Mark were raised in a middle-class neighborhood in Poughkeepsie, New York. Growing up in the '80s, the Bell brothers idealized TV wrestlers and action heroes. As they got older, they continued to pursue the dream of becoming physical performers like Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Mike, Chris and Mark
Chris' older brother Mike played football in high school and college, and then enjoyed a brief career as a professional wrestler before becoming a youth football coach. Chris left Poughkeepsie and got a job at "the Mecca of bodybuilding" Gold's Gym in Venice, California while going to USC Film School. Mark, the youngest, became a competitive weight lifter and tried to pursue a career in professional wrestling too. Along the way, all the Bell boys tried anabolic steroids. Chris stopped after two months, but Mike and Mark have continued to use steroids despite their wives' concerns.
Chris' brothers, parents, and sisters-in-law are all surprisingly open and thoughtful in their on-camera discussions with Chris about steroids, and if Bigger, Stronger, Faster* was limited to just this personal story of the Bell family, it'd be good, but there's much more here that makes it even better; even if it does get a bit too sprawling before it's done. Chris travels around the United States, Canada, and Mexico to speak with physicians, politicians, athletes, steroid users and critics, fighter pilots, porn stars, models, actors, photographers, musicians, homework coaches and just about anybody else he can think of that have anything to say about steroid use specifically, or the hunt for a competitive advantage generally.
Steroids were introduced into American sports by the US Olympic Committee (USOC) in the 1950s to outdo the Soviets. Despite subsequently being banned by the International Olympic Committee and other sporting bodies, they've continued to be used routinely by athletes. According to Dr. Wade Exum, former USOC Director of Drug Control, over 2000 American Olympians failed drug testing during his watch, but these results were typically covered up. Following a steroids scandal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Congress banned the use of anabolic steroids without a medical prescription despite the fact that there is little or no evidence to suggest that the use of steroids is especially dangerous.
Chris interviews medical professionals who assert that the known adverse health effects of anabolic steroids in adult men are slight and mostly reversible. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only three deaths per year are attributed to steroid abuse, whereas annual deaths from tobacco and alcohol are 435,000, and 75,000 respectively, and steroids-related emergencies ranked 142 on the list of reasons for emergency room visits, behind even multivitamin overdosing.
Chris explores why steroids were criminalized in the absence of scientific evidence of harm, and why in 2005 Congress spent more time holding hearings on steroid use in professional baseball than it did on national health care, the New Orleans levee failure, or the war in Iraq. Following an interview with a demonstrably uninformed Henry Waxman (D - CA), the chair of the committee that held the baseball inquiry, Chris visits Don Hooton, who attributes his son's suicide to steroids withdrawal. Although there is no evidence to support a causal link between steroids and suicide, and though his son was being treated with SSRI antidepressants at the time of his suicide, which have been linked with increased suicide risk in adolescent users, Hooton remains convinced that steroids were responsible, and is wholly closed to considering whether they should be legally available to adults without a prescription even if regulated for children.
Chris & Fitness-Model/Steroid-User Christian Boeving
In his zeal to include everything but the kitchen sink, Chris also takes a swipe at the unregulated health supplements industry, and its champion, Senator Orin Hatch (R - UT). And, here Chris does seem to trudge in the footsteps of Spurlock by going so far as to create his own perfectly-legal, perfectly-dubious supplements at his kitchen table, accompanied by a photoshopped before-and-after advert, but at least he stopped short of making anyone consume it for 30 days.
Chris, Before & After Photoshop
The subtitle of Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, buried by that asterisk, is "the side effects of being American." It's Chris's proposition that American culture glorifies physical perfection and winning to a degree found nowhere else, and that consequently, Americans who have internalized this desire take steroids, starve themselves, get elective surgeries, or engage in other doggy practices to a degree unrivaled elsewhere in the world. As General George S. Patton, Jr. said, "Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time."
Chris Bell does triple duty, serving as director, co-writer, and star. His intelligence, confidence, charm, and personal familiarity with steroids serve him extremely well. He has none of the smugness that trip up Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, though he might have done better to avoid overplaying his steroids-are-American-as-apple-pie theme, as it can make him sound like he's channeling Moore, as it does in the concluding narration:
"This is America. We are the greatest country in the world. You could call us a nation on steroids, but what are those long-term side effects? For me and my brothers, steroids are not the problem. They are just another side effect of being American."
Shot of HD video, and presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1), Bigger, Stronger Faster* looks pretty good. Color levels are steady and natural looking. The newly-shot video sometimes look slightly soft, but generally is more than adequate. The archival material is of varying qualities but doesn't distract from the viewing experience.
This disc provides 5.1 and 2.0 DD audio options. Both sound fine with no noticeable dropouts or distortions. There is modest use of the surrounds for the score, but most of the sound in this dialogue-driven doc is directed to the left and right front channels. Dialogue is always clear and distinct, and audio levels are steady.
Optional Spanish subtitles are provided.
Extras include a three-minute behind-the-scenes featurette noting that the film was two years in the making, including over 100 days of shooting, and was composed from 400 hours of original footage and 600 hours of archival material. A bit of that extra material makes it into the sixteen deleted scenes, all of which were rightly excluded from the main feature. Finally, there are several trailers for other Magnolia Pictures DVD releases, but not one for this.
Though filmmaker Chris Bell has no problem with sporting leagues banning steroids or otherwise attempting to ensure fairness, he makes a persuasive case that the government has no business entering the fray. In the absence of evidence of extraordinary risk, Chris argues steroids should be available to adults without a prescription.
Athletes and body builders are the obvious audience for Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, but it should also be seen by anyone that cares about civil liberties.