United States, 2008
Directed By: Christopher Bell
Written By: Christopher Bell, Alexander Buono, Tamsin Rawady
Starring: Christopher Bell, Mark Bell, Mike Bell, Carl Lewis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Stan Lee
Running Time: 106 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving drugs, language, some sexual content and violent images
This review was originally published July 28th, 2008.
Before we even see the full title of Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, director Christopher Bell essentially gives us his life story. He and his two brothers grew up in the U.S. in the 1980’s—the era of enormous musclemen. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone were huge at the box office, and Hulk Hogan was rocking the arena in the WWF. As members of a family who were husky by nature, Bell and his two brothers became obsessed with bulking out, leading them into the worlds of college football, professional wrestling, weightlifting, and bodybuilding—where the pressure to be the biggest, the strongest, and—yes—the fastest was insurmountable. All three of them turned to steroids, not necessarily to be the best—but merely to meet status quo. And on their way to adulthood, they realized all their heroes—Sly, Arnold, the Hulk—had done the same.
It’s only then that the title appears on the screen: Bigger, Stronger, Faster*: *The Side Effects of Being American.
There’s no doubt that Bell believes every word of his title. Steroid use, he argues, is not a disease; it’s a mere symptom of a culture that is nothing short of obsessed with competition, domination, and general social Darwinism. As someone who’s seen it all firsthand, Bell speaks with a conviction that’s unimpeachable. His message, however, isn’t the sort of anti-drug alarmism you get from D.A.R.E. or an after school special (in fact, he mocks the latter pretty mercilessly); instead he points the microphone at the country (the world, even) and asks them some hard questions: How did we get here? What can we do about it? Can steroid use and abuse be stopped? Should it? Why single out athletes? What about other performance enhancers?
The scope of the film, though, goes far beyond the question of drugs. Like all great documentaries, this one is about humanity itself, and asks tough questions such as at what point an indiscretion becomes a sin, what the essence of human strength is, and what a child can do when he grows up and sees his heroes for what they really are. It is both hilarious and heartbreaking—often simultaneously.
Watching Bigger, Stronger, Faster*put one question in my head above all others: Who is Christopher Bell? And where has he been all these years? This occasional small-time WWE wrestler and sometime-employee at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, CA is now in his 30’s, and he has but one other film credit to his name (some obscure short called “Billy Jones”)—and all I could think about while watching this film was how desperately the American documentary scene needed him. Bigger, Stronger, Faster*employs the style of irony-drenched culture jamming pioneered by Michael Moore (and adopted by everyone from Morgan Spurlock to Ben Stein), but brings to it a balance that it’s arguably never seen before. Bell isn’t afraid to embarrass those who deserve it (turns out that Henry Waxman, the congressman who led the legal battle against steroids, doesn’t even know what the legal drinking age is), but he has no real agenda—he’s here to facilitate a discussion that’s desperately needed. The filmmaking skill on display here is incredible, andBigger, Stronger, Faster* remains consistently entertaining, even as it asks you to think—and think deeply.
One of the highlights of the film is when Bell investigates the use of drugs in other fields: students who use Adderall (without a prescription) to help them study, musicians who take drugs to help them focus, porn stars who depend on Viagra. A musician tells him that he should be allowed to use drugs, but that athletes should not, because athletes are competing and musicians aren’t. Bell asks him whether musicians should be allowed to use drugs when they audition; the musician says of course. And why not? he reasons. Music isn’t sports. This, ultimately, is the picture of the world that Bigger, Stronger, Faster* paints: everyone must be the best, at any cost, but is more than willing to point the finger at others. Bell interviews Carl Lewis, who received the gold in the 1988 Olympic 100m dash only because Canadian runner Ben Johnson was stripped of his for drug use (despite known drug use by Lewis). He interviews a man who blames steroids for his son’s suicide, despite his son’s extensive use of antidepressants (a known cause of suicide). He even goes after his own governor, Arnold himself, who routinely speaks out against steroids, but once used them himself, and even sponsors an annual bodybuilding competition that doesn’t screen for them.
Bell goes after the supplement industry as well, which, in case you didn’t know, is entirely unregulated. To illustrate this, he hires some illegal immigrants and spends an afternoon putting together a bottle of supplement pills that costs him about two dollars to make, but would sell for sixty. (Each pill is filled with more than 90% rice flour.) It’s an amusing segment, but in the context of the film, it becomes a biting metaphor for just how hollow all of this is: the obsession with being the best, the need to make sure no one but you cheats, the fixation on leveling a playing field that can never be truly level. Frustrated, Bell interviews his deeply religious mother, who is mortified to hear that her sons use drugs. “You’re fearfully and wonderfully made,” she says, referencing Psalm 139, “You boys don’t need that stuff.”
And deep down, we all know that, while she may not be eloquent, she’s right.