Saturday, November 1, 2008
Bigger, Stronger, Faster by Chris Bell
I watched the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster this week, and I recommend it to my readers. On the surface, it's about anabolic steroids, but it's really about a lot more than that.
I looked back at the movie reviews I've done recently, and a lot of them have been about documentaries, especially if we only include the positive reviews. Chris Bell shows the world of performance enhancing drugs in America by making it a story about his family. Chris was the middle kid in a family of three brothers, and they grew up as outsiders in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Their loving mom is fat, and she raised fat kids, but the boys loved wrestling and action films, most especially Stallone and Schwarzenegger, and all three of them started working out and getting involved in sports that emphasized strength, including football, power lifting and wrestling. Chris was a state champion power lifter as a teen, but his brothers, the older nicknamed Mad Dog and the younger nicknamed Smelly, took the competition to the next level. To get to that next level, they took anabolic steroids. Chris tried them, but stopped not because he feared the health consequences, but because he was dogged by guilt instilled in him by his parents and his own sense of fair play.
Like with most documentaries, the film is moved forward by the face to face interviews, and Bell, by being part of the weight lifting and muscle development world, gets people to open up and he treats his subjects with respect. The only exceptions to this rule are politicians. The crusaders against steroids are made to look idiotic more often than not, and Henry Waxman is made to look very foolish in his on screen interview. Others like Joe Biden are made to look silly in clips from C-SPAN. Bell's wrath against politicians isn't just aimed at meddling Democrats, as he also takes a big swipe at Orrin Hatch, whose efforts at passing deregulation of the health supplement industry, much of it based in Utah, have created a market Bell, an informed consumer, considers a scam.
Bell isn't convinced about the worst side effects of anabolic steroids, and compares the demonization of the drugs to the famous anti-marijuana film Reefer Madness. The problem he sees clearly is the big change in the American Dream. The dream used to be what his father achieved, get married and get a good job, work hard, provide for your family and give them opportunities as good or better than you had. The Bell brothers are no strangers to hard work, but their dreams are of hitting it big, achieving fame and fortune at the amazing level of their heroes like Stallone and Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan. To them, it seems like they are just one lucky break away from the fat money, and that is shown as the drug more dangerous than anything they might swallow or inject.
Who can blame them for believing in the glittering prize that is one lucky break away? Joe the Plumber? Sarah Barracuda? Any of the dozen people shoved to the upper level of show business by American Idol? To use the metaphor Bell uses in his excellent film several times, this is the American Dream on steroids, and it doesn't look very pretty anymore.