A good documentary will take you places you didn’t plan to go, but I didn’t really expect that from Bigger, Stronger, Faster, an incisive and compulsively watchable look at America’s love affair with steroids. The film kicks off with a montage of the cheesetastic stars of the 1980s. There’s a pile-driving Hulk Hogan, a bare-torsoed Sly Stallone strafing his enemies in Rambo, and Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing his veiny, condom-filled-with-coconuts biceps. These ripped and snarling muscleheads incarnated the new, pumped-up American might of the Reagan era, with Gold’s Gym in L.A. as their training mecca, and Christopher Bell, the director of Bigger, Stronger, Faster, lets us know how much they meant to him as a kid. Of course, two of them (Stallone is the exception) have since admitted to using anabolic steroids — i.e., synthetic testosterone. By the time Bell shows us Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa smashing home runs, I’m thinking: Okay, we get it! Steroids are a lie! They turned the USA into a land of fraudulent jock kings!
The truth, according to the movie, is more complicated — and fascinating. Hooked on their image of hard-muscled potency, Bell and his two brothers, all of whom tended toward the tubby, became bodybuilders. Both the brothers embraced steroids, and the film presents them, with touching candor, as broken and desperate men, eager to escape suburban banality through their addiction to the vanity of power and size. Yet just when Bigger, Stronger, Faster looks like it will turn into an exposé of the evils of steroid use, the film takes a surprise turn. It admits that using steroids is ”cheating,” but it also says that steroids have been demonized — turned into a scapegoat for a society that craves…more.
The movie traces their use in athletics back to the 1950s, when they were given (in secret) to American Olympic teams to compete with the Soviets, who were already using them. Bell piles up compelling evidence that the drugs’ hazards and side effects, from ‘roid rage to liver damage, have been overstated by the media in Reefer Madness fashion. (We see hilarious clips from a cautionary 1994 Ben Affleck TV episode.) He poses the questions: Why is steroid use frowned upon — but sleeping in a high-altitude chamber to raise a bike racer’s blood-oxygen level okay? Why is Tiger Woods’ LASIK surgery, which gave him close to perfect vision, an acceptable performance enhancement? As a filmmaker, Bell has guts. He faces down the disgraced Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, and he takes on the $24 billion body-supplement industry, a snake-oil empire in which ”Before” and ”After” photos are shot the same day. Not to mention the use of cortisone shots in locker rooms; the classical musicians who ease their performance anxiety with beta-blockers; and a dozen other examples. ”There’s a clash in America,” says Bell, ”between doing the right thing and being the best.” Bigger, Stronger, Faster is a portrait of a culture that claims to hate steroids but may, by now, be too pumped to do much about it. A-