As the documentary film Bigger, Stronger, Faster opens, director Christopher Bell takes us back to the early 1980s.
It was an impressionable time for him, representing the golden era of pro wrestling (Hulk Hogan was his biggest hero), action films and the fitness craze. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were the leading icons of the hulking, muscle-bound man. The message here was simple: To be attractive, successful and virile, you must look like these guys.
These beefed-up, oiled muscle heads represented the ideal male body image to many. Bell and his two brothers-the older, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, and younger brother, also named Mike “Smelly” Bell-were among the true believers. They, like plenty of men and even women at the time, accepted these messages signed, sealed and delivered.
The Bell brothers grew up in a family of bulky-bodied members. The brothers sought acclaim through body building. However, both Mad Dog and Smelly readily admit to using steroids. It gave them, the film notes, the same edge also provided to stars like Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Hogan. Christopher Bell recalled dabbling a little bit with performance-enhancing drugs, explaining, “If I used performance-enhancing steroids, I would be so filled with guilt it would ruin me.”
The fascinating thing about the film is that it doesn’t look to demonize steroid use in the family and sports. Instead, it wants to delve deeper into the issue of how our culture vilifies steroids on the one hand while glorifying “success and winning” at all costs on the other.
Meanwhile, the brothers’ lives are examined throughout the movie.
Mad Dog did have a short-lived, and largely undistinguished, wresting career. He was the guy who got pummeled by the A-list wrestling star on televised matches before wrestling shows started showcasing more main event-style bouts on their TV programs.
Mad Dog eventually settles down with his wife and stops taking steroids, but is unsatisfied with life. He still believes that now, in his mid-30s, he could still have a distinguished career. “I’m the only one holding myself back,” he tells Chris as he crunches numbers in his tax office job. Meanwhile, Smelly, equally delusional about his future, promises his wife that he’ll give up steroids following his final power-lifting competition. But he slyly winks at Chris and the camera when he makes this promise. He’s come too far to stop now.
The film does note some advantages of steroids-like its use in AIDS treatment. The film also looks at how politicians are now scrutinizing athletes for using performance-enhancing drugs. But other legal stimulants, the film points out, are given a pass under the same scrutiny. There are stimulants used by pilots to help improve sight, for students to aid with retention for exams, and even porn stars to help with…endurance?
This isn’t to say that the film is pro-steroids. On the contrary, it is very clear that Chris Bell is against the idea of them, largely for ethical reasons. However, he feels the criticism and contradictions attached to steroids need exposing.
He muses, for example, that while baseball stadiums across the country are holding steroid awareness days, they’re also selling alcohol, which kills thousands of people annually. Less than three people a year die from steroids, he notes.
This film works because it does not present its information as a stinging indictment nor as cheerleading for steroid use. It simply wants us to confront the information about them before forming an opinion. It is at times very funny and at others jarringly bittersweet. The movie looks at both sides objectively and dissects the myths and misconceptions attached to their usage. In doing so, it uses the old Dragnet approach in presenting the steroid arguments-just the facts.