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Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

(2008) *** 1/2 Pg-13
106 min. Magnolia Pictures. Director: Christopher Bell. Cast: Barry Bonds, Carl Lewis.

/content/films/3089/6.jpgWith his documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, Chris Bell doesn't just take a page from the Michael Moore playbook, he takes the whole book. And why not? The result may be the most entertaining and provocative hybrid of personal essay and American social-satiric documentary since Roger & Me. The subject: America's body dysmorphia and the resulting "growth" of steroid use.

In addition to alluding to baseball's records books, the asterisk in the title leads to the subtitle "The Side Effects of Being American." Bell begins by recounting his own American upbringing, in a hefty family with a workaday father who keeps his worries soundly bottled, a mother who rallies everyone around a sizeable feedbag, and three brothers whose insecurity about weight—and hero worship of Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger—leads them to pumping up and shooting up. Imagine their surprise to learn, as adults, that their fitness-preaching heroes were on steroids as well.

"What I don't get," says Mrs. Bell, "is why did our boys feel like they were not good enough?" Bell's early collage of Hulk, Arnie, Stallone, the Incredible Hulk, He-Man, and the Six Million Dollar Man provides an answer by itemizing his '80s childhood diet. Bell effectively establishes the implicit message sent to boys: strength is located in the biceps and sex appeal in the six-pack. Heroism is super-human, from the larger than life "Bash Brothers" (Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco) to the superheroes who spawn unrealistically muscular action figures. Bell even sits down Marvel Comics maven Stan Lee, who cops to being influenced by the famous Charles Atlas comic-strip ad promising ninety-eight-pound weaklings could get revenge on muscle-heads by following his program.

Bell is, of course, right on the money about the "men's health" culture, which counter-productively goes beyond fitness to making real men feel inadequate. (Bell nods to the equivalent issue in women by including mom's tossed-off comment "At least I don't have a daughter with her face in the bowl throwing up.") In a segment that humorously confirms what any intelligent person knows, Bell interviews a fitness model on steroids and a fitness-model photographer who explains—and then demonstrates on the filmmaker—how easily and quickly a "before-after" ad can be faked. Bell also delves into the sporting culture, from the forever compromised baseball "heroes" like Barry Bonds to the international Olympians (including above-it-all Carl Lewis) who "enhanced" their way to medals.

If Bell's journey starts with concern for his brothers and disillusionment for himself ("I really thought muscles were the answer. All they got me is a job selling gym memberships"), his path of discovery leads him not out of the woods but deeper into them. Bell convincingly challenges commonly held conceptions about anabolic steroids. Bell intimates that politicians have been using steroids as a political football to score touchdowns with constituents; we see for ourselves how little Congressman Henry Waxman knows about the drugs against which he adamantly legislates. Do steroids kill? No more than other drugs—including legal ones—that are abused in excess, according to Bell's findings. "'Roid rage," Bell suggests, has been blown seriously out of proportion.

Are steroids cheating? Even this seemingly clear-cut question dithers on its way to its "yes, but..." answer. In American win-at-all-costs culture, hypocritical higher-ups look the other way and, as Ben Johnson says, "everybody else" is doing it. Bell checks out hormone-enhanced bulls and muses on how sports may be inevitably and permanently reconfigured around gene doping. As baseball ticket revenues and Arnie's trajectory to the California State Capitol prove, the issue of cheating is largely irrelevant. Bell's brother Mike "Mad Dog" Bell—an aging WWE aspirant—sums up his life, "I'd rather be dead than average."

The film's most penetrating aspect is its implication of the viewer. Who among us hasn't cheated? Bell demonstrates (with self-medicating porn stars, pilots, students, and musicians) how every kind of performance has its enhancement. And though he doesn't overtly go there, we can follow the train of thought further to infidelity, embezzlement, and padded resumes: a majority of Americans agree with Bell's other brother Mark "Smelly" Bell, a powerlifter: "You do what you've got to do to win." Though Bell may pilfer the Moore formula (including the now-requisite cheeky animated interlude), the filmmaker isn't cheating. And even though he fails to dramatize an epiphany, Bell arrives at something like an answer for himself about the value of steroids—with an asterisk of course.

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