Christopher Bell’s documentary "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" caught us completely by surprise. Subtitled "The Side Effects of Being American," it begins as a semi-personal doc about steroid use amongst the heroes of sports and screen and within Bell’s own weightlifting Poughkeepsie family. It looks to be all in the Michael Moore mold, with its everyman narrator/director and small-scale framing of a large-scale examination â€” the film even has its own Roger Smith in the form of California governator Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Bell has genuine inquiry on his mind, and one gets the feeling he wasn’t sure where the film would end when he began it â€” he’s not even convinced that steroids are any worse for you than the average supplement or prescription drug, and gets some solid testimony to support that view. What does trouble him are the ethical questions behind performance enhancing drugs, as well as â€” and this is where "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" heads way beyond the bounds of the average outrage doc â€” what Bell sees as symptomatic problems with the conflicting ideals of Americanism represented by steroid use, namely that our desire to do the right thing comes in direct contention with our drive to be the best. A melange of investigative work, interviews, home video, news pieces and clips from the oeuvres of the bulgy 80s trinity of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" very much needs a tighter edit and better structure, but it’s entertaining, funny as hell and disarmingly self-effacing. Bell doesn’t showboat or fake ignorance, and so gets unassumingly honest answers out of many of his interviewees, like fitness model Christian Boeving, who essentially shrugs that it’s the foolishness of consumers that leads them to believe his physique is really due to the supplements for whose ads he poses.
But it’s the footage of Bell’s family that becomes the most difficult to watch and that finally makes the film worthwhile. Bell is one of three brothers chasing dreams of pro wrestling and weightlifting, and he’s the only one not using steroids. Their parents are aware of what their sons have been up to, but avoid confronting the issue. In a series of interviews that, thankfully, seem to originate too much from personal concern to seem exploitative, Bell gets wrenching moments with his mother, with his older brother, who’s consumed with self loathing that he hasn’t achieved the greatness (for him, WWE stardom) for which he feels he’s meant, and with his younger brother, who coaches football and tells his students they don’t need steroids, while remaining bluffly unapologetic about being on them to adults. These segments are painful and revealing, and do justify Bell’s rather wide-ranging voiceover musings, capping off a doc more ambitious than it first appears.
+ "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" (Sundance)