The public debate over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sports has been reduced to a simple equation: steroids are cheating, and cheating is wrong. Not only wrong, but un-American. In the insightful, mind-altering documentary Bigger Stronger Faster* (The Side Effects of Being American), Christopher Bell shows there's a lot more to this story than what's been reported in the mainstream media and discussed during congressional hearings.
A weightlifter and gym rat whose masculine ideal derives from the testosterone-fueled images of his pumped-up boyhood heroes Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Hulk Hogan, director Chris Bell seems an unlikely poster boy for the feminist slogan that the personal is political. But Bell, along with documentary partners Alex Buono and Tamsin Rawady, skillfully interweaves his own family's history into a greater exploration of how drug use fuels our get-ahead-at-any-cost society and why anabolic steroids have been embraced by some Americans and demonized by others.
With steroid use in baseball singled out for damning commentary — the corrosive effects of juicing on the sacrosanct national pastime — Bell focuses on former San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds as a telling case study. Taking steroids will not transform an average player into Bonds; the drug builds muscle mass, but can't bestow the skills, reflexes or determination of a professional player. But could Bonds have achieved his record-setting stats without steroids? What does that say about him as an athlete? How complicit are the fans cheering him on? And is winning really more important than how you play the game
Bigger Stronger Faster* explores these questions through interviews with athletes and experts, doctors and politicians, lawyers and journalists, activists and users, examining the effects of — and misconceptions about — anabolic steroids. The inquiring middle child in a family of muscle-bound brothers, Bell keeps bringing the problem home, and it's his personal exploration of the physical and moral consequences of steroid use that makes this documentary much more than a dry treatise on American sports culture.
A lot of taboo subjects are up for frank discussion, including male body image and the cost of embracing an idealized physique, family dynamics and diminished expectations, hero worship and what strength means in a world where hypocrisy is the norm, and backpedaling the standard response to probing questions. This smart, funny, and enlightening documentary illuminates what America is like on steroids: bigger, stronger, faster and about to crash.
At Main Art Theatre, 118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].