Thursday, October 16, 2008

Review for Bigger, Stronger, Faster.

Review - “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*”

October 16th, 2008 by Tessa Moran

In America, success is earned when one works hard and plays by the rules. At least that’s what Arnold Schwarzenegger says, the Austrian body-builder turned actor turned Governor of California. Success was certainly in his cards, but whether he played by the rules is questionable, especially as Mr. Universe later revealed that he used anabolic steroids.

But we all cut corners, right? The documentary film Bigger, Stronger, Faster* argues that we do, using Schwarzenegger and the steroid debate as an emblem of American hypocrisy. Damned if you don’t become number one, damned if you do use steroids to get there. Note that the asterisk in the title is for the “side effects of being American.”

Another hypocrisy explored in the film is that while America shuns athletes who use steroids, it is seemingly unconcerned with students who use Adderall to get ahead in school or musicians who use beta blockers to curb performance anxiety. While the parallel seems a bit of a stretch, it does call attention to the very depressing reality that there are short-cuts to nearly every success.
And then there’s that hero complex that seems particularly American. The
Terminator, Rocky and Hulk Hogan were just a few real-life hero's director Chris Bell aspired to be as a self-proclaimed fat kid from Poughkeepsie, NY. His two brothers, nicknamed “Mad Dog” and “Smelly” for their vigorous, if not obsessive training regimens, also aspired to be body builders. Bell differed from his brothers in that he did not take steroids. He believed it to be cheating, even though every single one of his “hero's” had been a user.

So the film serves as Bell’s quest to divulge the hypocritical, and sometimes debilitating American drive to succeed, even within his own family. Bell injects himself entirely into the film as narrator, interviewer, subject and even,
provocateur. His approach is similar to that of Michael Moore, taking liberties to ask the hard questions and knock down anyone’s door to get them. Thankfully, Bell appears to be interested in the “other side,” even though in the end he largely discounts steroid naysayers.

Among them is the father of a young steroid-user who committed suicide. He was relentlessly campaigning against steroid use, even though his son had been taking Lexapro, an anti-depressant associated with suicidal tendencies. Easiest to discount was Senator Henry Waxman, who headed Congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball, but came across as if he’s never heard of the topic. What better to hook viewers than an ill-informed politician to scoff at?

The film’s greatest success is in its depiction of the Bell brothers, whose dreams of being great at times bordered on delusional and destructive. Mad Dog’s quest for stardom involved relocating to California away from his family. He painfully admits that he would rather die than fail. Smelly challenges his wife’s request for him to stop taking steroids so that they can conceive another child.
In one heartbreaking scene, Bell’s mother tearfully asks what she did to cause her sons to be so unsatisfied, and to resort to drug use in order to get ahead. Yet in another scene, Bell freeze-frames a shot of his father and mother cheering at Smelly’s weight lifting competition. He comments that his father looked like he just won the lottery, and that his mother looks like she’s thanking God for her blessings. The juxtaposition of these scenes best explains the hypocrisy Bell is aiming to depict.

Not all issue-driven documentaries need a character study to be compelling. “No End in Sight”, Charles Ferguson’s film about the Iraq War is an example of this. But “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” would not have been nearly as successful had it not explored the Bell family’s struggle to come to terms with simply being like everyone else. This character study provided necessary grounding for what at times seemed to be an overly-ambitious film. At one point, the film is addressing the health implications of steroid use. The next, it is discussing hero-worship in America. Elsewhere, it examines the lack of regulation and false advertising of nutritional supplements use. And so on, and so on. As a result, the film dragged on a bit too long. Even so, the film never ceases to entertain, and its honest look at steroid use in America opens up a fascinating debate about our incessant drive to succeed. A fine piece of documentary film making.