By Matt Singer
[For complete coverage of the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, check out IFC’s Tribeca page.]
On February 16, 2007, Sylvester Stallone was busted in Australia with 48 vials of the human growth hormone Jintropin. To some, this was a non-story; after all, Stallone was not “cheating” in the same way a professional athlete might be if he were caught with the same performance-enhancing drugs. Stallone is an actor, and he’s not competing against anyone. According to his lawyer, he was using Jintropin under medical supervision.
But Stallone is also the man who plays Rocky Balboa and John Rambo in fact, he was training to play Rambo for the first time in 20 years when the seizure took place. In “Rocky IV,” murderous Russian boxer Ivan Drago is vilified for using steroids. On the other hand, Rocky trains the all-natural, old-fashioned way, with backbreaking labor. The message: Hard work and determination always triumphs over shortcuts. Hard to stomach when you know that the guy playing Rocky was probably getting some kind of liquid assistance with his training regiment of carrying enormous logs across great distances in the snow.
Christopher Bell’s clear-eyed, impassioned documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” puts this preposterous hypocrisy front and center. Narrated throughout by Bell himself, it begins with the director’s recollections of his youth, one spent idolizing hard-bodied ’80s muscle man icons such as Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan. Bell and his two brothers became so fixated on these Herculean figures that they put themselves on the training regimens these men publicly espoused. When they didn’t see the same results, they turned to steroids. Though it’s not fair to blame those men for the Bells’ actions I watched all those movies and wrestling matches and only took steroids when I had mono it’s not unfair to speculate that watching them is what first sparked his and many other young men’s interest in bodybuilding. Bell’s brothers still use performance enhancers, but they have a hard time admitting it to their loving parents (though, thanks to the siblings’ collective desire for fame and stardom, they’re incredibly comfortable discussing it with a movie camera).
Bell’s approach is both micro and macro, chronicling his own family’s steroid use and the strain it puts on the family’s ethos (one that jives with that clean living over cheating one that was discussed earlier), while putting their struggles into a larger cultural context through interviews with noted physicians who’ve studied the effects of steroids and athletes whose lives have been touched by their impact. Though Bell himself considers steroid use by athletes to be unsavory, he’s open-minded enough to discuss the drugs’ positive medical benefits (an HIV-positive man speaks of how they give him a standard of life) as well as question a father who blames them for the death of his son.
Above all, what Bell portrays better than anything else is the mountain of lies buried beneath the controversy surrounding performance enhancers. He gets a professional bodybuilder and model to admit that his chiseled build is a direct result of the steroids he takes, not the dietary supplements that he pimps in magazine ads; a photographer later shows Bell how the “before” and “after” pictures in a lot of these advertisements can easily be manipulated using digital airbrushes. While Ronald Reagan was declaring a war on drugs, he was also publicly saluting actors and their on screen creations that had more to do with injections than squat thrusts.
That American myth that Reagan used Stallone and Schwarzenegger to prop up in the 1980s is one built on the idea that everyone is given equal opportunity to succeed, and that those who work hardest are the ones that ultimately accomplish the most. Telling people with aspirations of a perfectly sculpted body that you’ve accomplished things through nothing more than grit when you’ve really been given a chemical boost isn’t just immoral; it is, as Bell points out, a competitive advantage. We like to imagine that our enemies the Ivan Dragos of the world are the ones sticking the needles into their butts. But consider this: Captain America, the flag-draped superhero, wasn’t born with incredible talents, and he didn’t earn his great strength through years of pumping iron. He was a scrawny weakling who was given a shot of “Super-Soldier Serum.” Yes, even our nation’s greatest comic book representation is a juicer. Coming to terms with that will ultimately be the true legacy of this so-called era. Bell’s fine film may well be remembered as one of the steps on the road that got us there.
[Photo: “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” Magnolia Pictures, 2008]
For more on “Bigger, Faster, Stronger,” check out the official site here.