Magnolia Pictures // 2008 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // October 3rd, 2008
*The side effects of being American.
Chris Bell's documentary about steroid use in America begins with the staples of '80s machismo: wrestling, Rambo, and Rocky. But soon these icons of Bell's childhood wither, as he discovers that each of them are pumped full of steroids. These opening scenes, which are quite funny in their own way, set up Bigger Stronger Faster* as a film that explores the big subject of steroid use in our culture from the small vantage point of the Bell Family.
Chris, and his two brothers (Mike and Mark Bell), were outcast little fat kids growing up in the small suburb of Poughkeepsie, NY. They were teased in school and made fun of for being so un-athletic and awkward. Then one day, they all started to get into the WWF (today the WWE); they started wrestling in their basement and soon decided that they would grow up to pursue a career in the sport. For Mark Bell, it kind of worked -- he went on to be an under-card wrestler known as a jobber. But for the three brothers, success never really hit. What they discovered, however, was that if you wanted to get ahead in the world of professional sports (especially bodybuilding and wrestling) you needed to take steroids.
For Mike and Mark, this wasn't much of an issue; but for Chris, the filmmaker, anabolic steroids were immoral. Much of the film is devoted to Bell searching for answers as to whether or not he should consider the use of steroids to be cheating. It's an interesting take on the film, but, in the end, the methods in which he presents facts and plot discoveries occasionally become bogged down in personal reflection. The entire process feels a little drawn out, especially at 106 minutes (this easily could have been trimmed down to 85 or 90 minutes and still been an effective documentary). That isn't to say that things are ever really boring in the film. He tackles the subject from virtually every angle -- including the use of steroids in the porn industry.
Chris Bell populates his documentary with a very colorful cast of bodybuilders, gym rats, athletes, doctors, and family members. One of the more intriguing outcomes of the film is the idea that there isn't a consensus on steroids in any sense. No one can seem to agree on whether they're dangerous; if they have side-effects; and if they should be regulated. Bell plays these contradicting characters and ideas off of one another, juxtaposing clips of one doctor talking about the side effects of steroids with another who claims there aren't any. It all becomes dizzying after a while, forcing viewers to sift through the facts to make up their own minds.
Bell is more balanced than most hot-topic documentarians these days, but his personal involvement in the story does lend itself to some questionable moments. At times, the film, which was produced by the folks behind Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, feels almost like a poor man's Michael Moore documentary. Like Moore, Bell tries to perform various provocative stunts, like making his own diet pills with some illegal immigrants or confronting Arnold Schwarzenegger on the campaign trail, but they don't always turn out as he'd hoped (when confronting Arnold, he winds up on the front page of the LA Times looking like a supporter). This all adds to the humor, of course, but at times feels as cheap as when other, more out-of-shape, filmmakers try it.
Any stunts or gimmicks employed by Bell, while enjoyable, pale in comparison to some of the more heartfelt moments in the film. The Bell family members all have their own experiences with steroids. His parents don't know about their boys' involvement with drugs until Chris confronts them about it on camera. This leads to the most touching and honest moment in the film: after Mrs. Bell recovers from the shock of finding out about her children's drug use, she takes a stance on the issue of steroids informed by her religious convictions. And just as you're ready to condemn Chris's brothers for using the drugs, you hear them talk about how their hopes and dreams seem out of reach without the steroids. For his first documentary, Chris Bell does a great job of drawing emotions and reactions out of people, and capturing it all on film.
Bell does all that he can to prove his hypothesis (which is subtly stated by the asterisk in the film's title): that steroid use is a side effect of the spirit of competition and winning that is so prevalent in American society. Regardless of whether you agree with his assessment of our culture, he presents a well-rounded argument.
The DVD transfer looks good in its filmed segments, but for some reason much of the television footage edited in to the movie is cropped at the top and bottom (not that it really impairs the content of said footage). The sound is also decent, with a score that's light and appropriate for much of the film alongside some good licensed music. The disc also contains two special features: an awkwardly quiet three-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, and over 40 minutes of deleted footage. While the featurette could have used some more time at the gym, the deleted scenes are pretty hefty. If you're looking for more interviews from some of the more interesting characters in the film, they can be found here.
Bigger Stronger Faster* is ultimately a fascinating documentary. Chris Bell spent over two years doing research for this film and it shows; the amount of facts, evidence, and examples of steroid use and abuse are astounding. It's understandable, then, that Bell would want to insert as much of his research as possible in the film, even if that means it wanders and loses focus at times. For sports fans, this is worth checking out.
Review content copyright © 2008 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Behind the Scenes
* Deleted Scenes