Go for the oddity – it’ll stick with you for the depth. Bigger, Stronger, Faster is a well-made film a little off the beaten path that offers something the blockbuster fare can’t – the rich intellectual and cinematic treatment that only comes from an independent director with personal passion for a national subject.
Watching Bigger, Stronger, Faster is like being inside director Christopher Bell’s head as he’s writing an essay. He uses the same cinematography techniques its producers used in Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 – bits of dialogue interspersed throughout his narrative; narratives illustrated by phantasmagoria blending pop culture, ironic images and charming graphics. The rhythm of the movie is similar, too – moving in sections from one large point into the next, drawing conclusions at each stage that tie into the overall thesis. He introduces himself and his family, visits the gym scene, the supplement manufacturing scene, to Arnold, Congress and the political backstory, and eventually ties it all together in a complex yet admirably tidy package. The production value is high, the research deep, and the editing nimble. And oh yeah – there are some pretty funny moments.
Bell has an ambitious vision behind this project, and he succeeds. While mainstream movies are generally simple and formulaic, with just one message to deliver, this film tackles a complex subject and reveals it to be more complex than you ever thought it was. It offers you the constructs to explore several messages that already exist, with the catch that you must consider them with respect to all of the other choices. This is not a simple anti-steroid rhetoric piece. There are darker, more graphic places he could have taken the film had that been his intention (incidentally, if that’s what you’re looking for, read Muscle by Samuel Fussell or Chemical Pink by Katie Arnoldi). While the director tells you he’s tried steroids and is against them, and treats their use as unsavory, he respectfully tells the side of each of his subjects, from athletes who passionately endorse steroids as legitimate performance enhancers to medical patients who endorse them as necessary for survival, to varieties of anti-steroid vigilantes. He’s giving you the tenets for intelligent discussion of the issue.
The lens he uses to examine the hubris of steroids is perfect – his family of three athletic brothers, and their wholesome, traditional parents. His parents represent the American mindset of success in the 1950s, right before steroids entered the stage. The mother is loving, innocent, and adorable, using cookie metaphors to teach life lessons to her dear sons. The father is a pragmatic 9-to-5’er who provides for his family and rolls out pearls of wisdom and insight, who is aware of his sons’ flaws yet accepts them. Without their sons, it would be unthinkable that this mother and father would be connected to steroids at all. But the boys represent the American mindset of today, competing in environments where they are pushed to be above average – beyond natural, even – and to identify themselves by contrasting their parents’ iconic identities. But they are forced to be tied intimately, even moreso through their filmmaker son forcing them to confront the issue through his three-year-long project.
Interestingly, while the proponents argue their hormone use affects only themselves, the film demonstrates just the opposite. Users are not isolated, but instead affect their spouses (his brother’s wife despairs of her husband’s use because it may prevent them from having children), their parents (“My heart is breaking,” their mother heartbreakingly says), youth (his brother lies about his steroid use to the children he coaches in order to set a good example), the taxpayer ($24 million has been allotted to steroid control, albeit impotently), all the way through society to the shaping of the country’s very culture. The film argues that every person who competes in sports at any level is faced with the pressure of impossible standards of greatness. Every person who participates in any endeavor is faced with the same pressures to perform, and culturally encouraged to use chemicals in order to succeed. Musicians rely on Beta blockers, in this film; students rely on Aderol. And it doesn’t stop with competition. Whether you’re waking up in the morning or going to sleep at night: there’s a pill for that. Even more than deciding how you feel about steroids, this film urges you to look critically at these cultural developments in our country, explore the issue of fairness in competition, and all the while be aware that this is not just a philosophical exercise, it is consummately personal, even a matter of life and death.
While this film effectively raises more good questions than it answers, it does leave you with a few certainties. One, steroids are inevitable in modern-day America and its foreseeable future, because of the culture and technology America has provided to nurture some of the most treacherous characteristics of human nature – competitiveness, the tendency to cheat, the hunger for purpose and identity. Two, you are left with the idea that the steroid age is logistically possible because it is essentially legally unregulated, but it thrives because it cannot be ethically regulated. Steroid trade and use thrive because of the contribution each individual in the country makes to the cultural mindset that breeds them, from the average sports fan exalting unnatural champions, to the coaches and judges who push the athletes to unnatural standards, to the entire society operating on a “there’s a pill for that” mentality. The director concludes that his brothers being on steroids is a symptom of being American.
America needed this film to be made. If you’re involved in athletics or your loved ones are, there’s no good reason not to see this film. If you’re involved in educating people about steroids, this belongs in your library. If you’ve never thought about steroids, or just enjoy an offbeat, informative, tough-provoking flick, give it 106 minutes. I enjoyed it and plan to see it again. I give it four-and-a-half kettlebells.