Christopher Bell's documentary about steroid abuse, Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, is marketed as "from the producers of Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11," yet there's something very un-Michael Moore going on here. Sure, Bell employs many of Moore's now-trademark filmmaking techniques. He inserts himself into scenes for dramatic and comedic effect, and makes ironic use of archival footage.
But Bell probes America's obsession with self-image in a way that Moore might find anathema; he sympathizes with, and challenges, both sides of the issue.
Maybe because, for Bell, it's personal.
As the middle child in a three-brother family obsessed with working out, Bell clearly has a personal stake in the ramifications of steroid use in our society. He also has a stake in its justifications, though, which sets up Bigger as both a balanced (if sometimes overstuffed) two-hour take on the country where size matters, big time.
The film starts off at a breezy clip, as Bell traces his and his brothers' humble beginnings in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., in the 1980s. Bell recalls the pop-culture machismo of his teenage years in a video montage ruled by the Stallone of Rambo and Rocky, the Schwarzenegger of Conan and Terminator, and the hulks Hogan and Incredible.
Born into middle-class mediocrity in class and looks, the brothers Bell sought refuge in the weight room. But while Christopher, in his often-humble narration, used the weights in relative moderation, Mike ("Mad Dog") and Mark ("Smelly") sought validation through football, wrestling, weight-lifting, whatever. To get bigger and better, they started juicing.
To understand his brothers' 'roid raging, Christopher takes the viewers into the nascent debate over the dangers of anabolic steroids. As balanced as Bell tries to appear, it's obvious he favors those who justify steroid use while questioning the dangers. The movie feels like it takes a jolting turn to the right, and we hear from the fully invested advocates (bodybuilders, muscle-magazine editors) and the experts (including Norm Fost, a professor of pediatrics and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin who suggests an anti-drug hysteria is at play).
Their collective conclusion: Steroids' dangers are vastly overstated. His sources claim the drugs have been officially cited as the cause of only three known deaths, and can be used with moderation just like everything from booze to prescription medication.
It's a fair point, although it seems egregious that Bell never interviews the three agencies he cites behind the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990: the American Medical Association, the Federal Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Administration. And what about the surgeon general?
Bell's most compelling proponent, though, is Jeff Taylor, an HIV-positive gay man whose steroid use transformed him from a 125-pound bedridden weakling to a 150-pounder with a dramatically higher T-cell count in six weeks.
But just when you think Bell has set us up for a bitch-slap defense of the dreaded juice, he returns to the stories of his brothers as they grapple with their lots in life. Mad Dog, who's already attempted suicide once, believes steroids are his ticket to pro-wrestling fame, even though he's in his mid-30s and a little paunchy. Smelly believes he needs steroids to pursue his weight-lifting hobby even though he tells his high school football players to lay off the stuff. His use complicates matters when his wife wants to have another child; steroids are infamous for reducing sperm count.
And so Bigger, Stronger, Faster* dances between Bell's intriguing personal journey and his journalist's search for the greater truths about steroids. Despite his ambitions, all that narrative juggling makes Bigger a noble effort, but not a great film.
His Moore-like ability to politely call both sides on their bullshit is the film's most watchable aspect. That's something Moore has generally tended to do only when it suits his argument; Bell seems to revel in his film's paradoxes. The most telling moment occurs when he confronts U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) – the driving force behind 2005's congressional hearings on steroids – who proves clueless when asked for basic information. Later, when Smelly protests that he's not a bad guy for taking steroids, Bell admonishes him: "But you're cheating."
And that seems to be Bell's ultimate point: that steroids are the symptom, not the cause. He alternately defends the use of steroids as no greater crime than the countless other forms of bad, yet legal, behavior, while shaming us for our various obsessions (self-image, size, strength, achievement, etc.).
Ethics trumps health for Bell, who serves up Arnold Schwarzenegger as the ultimate hypocrite. Schwarzenegger admits to juicing during his bodybuilding days, then tells America at the Republican National Convention that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can succeed. (Bell notes that after his re-election, Schwarzenegger had his bodybuilding posters torn down from the famous Gold's Gym he once called home.)
It doesn't take a liberal or a conservative to make that observation. Hypocrisy transcends political ideology. The asterisk in the movie's title refers to a subtitle: "The Side Effects of Being American," with all its attendant contradictions. And if Bigger, Stronger, Faster* takes a little too long to make its conflicting points, it's still fun to watch Bell juggle both sides.