Though it comes across as hale and hearty, Chris Bell's "Bigger Stronger Faster*," a litany of American body worship touchstones since the early Eighties, is nothing if not ambivalent towards its subject. Falling somewhere between a specific personal essay and a more vaguely targeted social commentary, Bell's documentary, a freeform expose of steroid use in the U.S., is, somewhat inevitably, a product of narcissism and insecurity, not unlike the psychological forces that compel bodybuilding and athletic determination in the first place. Fledgling feature filmmaker Bell, a self-described "fat, pale kid from Poughkeepsie" turns his camera on himself, his equally brawny brothers, and the culture at large that both tacitly supports and vocally abhors performance-enhancing drugs.
With jocular everydude Bell as our backwards cap and cargo shorts-wearing guide and Moore-ishly glib narrator, "Bigger Stronger Faster*" intrigues less as a diary film than as an occasionally revealing, knotty journey into the contradictions at the heart of the steroid debate--with the bar set so high, is it possible for athletes to stop the testosterone injections without falling to a disadvantage? Have crusading congressmen and media alarmists blown the consequences of steroid use, or abuse, out of proportion?
Above all else, Bell seems eager to dispel myths, especially in regards to instances of sickness or death attributed to steroid use; many talking-head doctors appear onscreen, claiming that their effects are exacerbated by pre-existing conditions, whether they be physical or mental (as in the case of 17-year-old baseball player Taylor Hooten, who committed suicide after a depression his father blames on anabolic steroids; cue music shift from flippant to plangent). Additionally, as a direct riposte to anyone who would refute the possibility of the drug's health benefits, Bell trots out the anomalous case of Jeff Taylor, who despite an HIV diagnosis, has seen a significant gain in T cells since taking steroids.
Next to these sentimental case studies, the parade of familiar sports celebrity 'roid pariahs--Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds--only perfunctorily serves to cast doubt on American attitudes towards what's largely perceived as cheating. If all is fair in sports, then where does one draw the line, and who draws it? Like most inexhaustive contemporary pop-doc filmmakers, Bell seems to save his most predictably satiric jabs for the political strawmen, here focusing on the wars waged on the Senate floor, where a nearly frothing Joe Biden calls performance enhancers "un-American." Indeed this is utterly opposed to Bell's conclusion, which situates steroids as American an apple pie, an inevitable, "natural" outgrowth of the masculine self-actualization of the Reagan-and-Rambo era.
A way to intellectually justify the enhanced football and competitive bodybuilding pursuits of his brothers, "Mad Dog" Mike and "Smelly" Mark, or a veritable expose of contemporary American ideals? While the proliferation of images of Eighties beast-mastering behemoths certainly dovetailed with a media-courted fitness craze, weightlifting has always been too much of a niche market for it to stand in as a metaphor for living in the U.S.A. (look at the obesity statistics).
Bell's skewed approach is exemplified by a late-film trip to the psychiatrist, who rather than diagnose what might have gone wrong in Mad Dog and Smelly's home, merely applies further culture critique, replete with G.I. Joe dolls of different eras, stripped to prove their increasingly defined pecs and abs. It's too simplified: are we really all just innocents victimized by a distinctly American striving for perfection? And how does class fit into all this? Ultimately, it's Bell's prerogative to put anabolic steroids on the same shelf as dietary supplements and weight-gaining powder, but by placing the blame on the culture rather than the individual, he leaves out a crucial piece of the puzzle.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]