Christopher Bell takes a Spurlockian docu-participatory approach in Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, combining a primer-essay on the use of anabolic steroids in America with a family chronicle verging on cine-therapy. Home movies and clips of Reagan-era pop icons introduce his pubescent mid-‘80s obsession, shared with his two brothers in their Poughkeepsie home, for the larger-than-Dad über-males Arnold, Stallone and Hulk Hogan. Teenage immersion in bodybuilding followed, and while Chris won powerlifting titles, older sib Mad Dog played Division 1 college football and became a wrestling “jobber” paid to get pummeled by the stars of the WWE; baby bro Smelly (a sweaty kid with a learning disability) eventually followed Mad Dog into the pro ring. Where Chris’s use of performance-enhancing drugs at the gym was brief and shame-inducing, Mad Dog (even after depression spirals and a suicide attempt) and Smelly habitually stayed jacked and competitive.
Bell places his clan’s history—his weightlifting uncle supplied Mad Dog with his first roids—in the context of the hardcore conditioning world he knows well, from hangers-on like a fiftysomething lifter and B-movie actor living out of his van in the Gold’s Gym parking lot to a spectrum of muscle-mag publishers, pro- and anti-PED athletes, regulatory officials and doctors who disagree on how scant the evidence is that intake of synthetic hormones does lasting, potentially fatal damage to the adult body. (After a decade of sanctimonious hysteria via mainstream media soundbites and screeds on the topic, Bell’s relativistic moral scale and presentation of frequently inconclusive data will come as news, or heresy, to many fans of ESPN and tabloid sports pages.) Even in employing familiar “gotcha” techniques, Bigger can’t help but make freakish yet self-deprecating gym rat Gregg Valentino and his enhanced 27-inch biceps (he makes puking sounds when asked how women react to his guns) look perversely noble next to posturing, grandstanding pols like Henry Waxman, Joe Biden and Governator Arnold himself (who still sponsors obviously roid-infused competitions while paying lip service to testing).
Bell’s ethical analysis is occasionally found wanting: He suggests in the film’s asterisked subtitle “The Side Effects of Being American” that PEDs aren’t cheating any more than a myriad of socially tolerated artificial aids/enhancements to the national goal of winning at all costs, but feels a personal, visceral revulsion at seeing Mad Dog and Smelly still juicing. More convincing is his case that the most nuanced game being played in alleged pursuit of “a level playing field” is a marathon round of hypocrisy, from suppressed drug-test failures of some Olympic athletes to the dietary-supplement industry pushing repackaged sugar pills that don’t have to be proven effective to reach the shelves, just “safe.” For the 85% of U.S. steroid users who are not competing in pro sports, but chasing pipe dreams like the still dying-to-be-discovered Mad Dog, they need their chemical edge to literally look in the mirror. The Bell brothers’ seriously Catholic parents emerge from the film as the characters with the least stressful ethos, however orthodox; their sweet, overweight mother preaches self-acceptance, and their father is still the same man who, asked for roid funds by his collegiate son, evenly replied, “If you need drugs, get a job.”