Why do people get bent out of shape about athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, but not when athletes use medical procedures and training methods to produce exactly the same effects, with roughly the same amount of expended effort? Are anabolic steroids actually more dangerous than other kinds of drugs or supplements, or is the evidence against them merely anecdotal? Christopher Bell's first-person documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster* attempts to look beyond the hysteria and consider exactly how and why a culture that values physical power has internalized the idea that steroid use in sports is a scourge. Bell's main reason for his inquiry? Both of his brothers have been using for years.
The family angle gives Bigger, Stronger, Faster* a personal and emotional underpinning that almost justifies the movie's adherence to the pro forma Michael Moore style. Bell opens with the telltale wry tone of the modern issue doc, poking fun of American excess via an anecdote about Hulk Hogan's wrestling rivalry with The Iron Sheik. Within the first five minutes, viewers with a low tolerance for this kind of cutesiness may be tempted to flee. If they do, they'll miss a complicated and astoundingly well-balanced documentary, designed to provoke reasoned debate. They'll also miss scenes of sublime contradiction, as when one of Bell's brothers, a power-lifter, tells him, "If you're apprehensive about trying new methods, maybe you're not cut out to be a champion," while admitting that he's not ready to confess to their parents or his teenage students that he's juicing.
Do Bell's brothers demur because they know deep down that steroids are wrong, or because they believe society's position on the matter is too biased for anyone to judge their choice fairly? It's to Bell's credit that he leaves that question open. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* offers persuasive examples of circumstances in which we let people make their own choices, no matter how dimwitted, from plastic-surgery addiction to daredevil stunts. But Bell also questions a culture so obsessed with body image and celebrity that people feel compelled to transform themselves by any means necessary. "I was born to attain greatness," one of Bell's brothers insists. To which Bell shoots back, with all due fraternity: Why can't you be happy with who you are?