Bigger, Stronger, Faster
Ostensibly, Bigger, Stronger, Faster is a documentary about one of the hottest topics in American culture today: steroids. But it is also a portrait of a family—the all-American Bell family from Poughkeepsie, New York. The Bells are made up of two parents (Sheldon and Rosemary, married for 37 years) and their three muscle-bound boys: Mike ("Mad Dog"), Chris (who wrote and directed the film), and the youngest, Mark ("Smelly").
The Bell boys came of age in the Reagan-era 80s, at the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the physical fitness craze. Their heroes were people like Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, musclemen wrestlers and action stars who embodied the pumped-up male body image. Young boys everywhere sought to achieve the powerful physiques of these icons, and the Bell boys were no exception. They began intense weight training and undertook intensive dietary changes so as to look like Arnold and excel in sports like football, wrestling, and weightlifting. Only later did they find out that these so-called "heroes" conveniently withheld one crucial little secret to their physical success: steroids and performance-enhancing drugs.
These days, the Bell boys are all grown up, some married and with kids. Two of the three brothers (Mike and Mark) are regular users of steroids, justifying them for competitive powerlifting (Mark) and pro wrestling aspirations (Mike). Chris, who narrates the film, is the only brother who isn't on the juice, and you can see it in his slightly more normal-looking physique. The motivating question, then, that apparently led Chris (who also went to USC film school) to make this documentary is thus: "If steroids are demonized in society and considered un-American, what does that make my family? Are the Bell brothers the bad guys?"
To its credit (and perhaps its detriment), Bigger does not approach the issue of steroids in a simplistic manner. That is, it refuses to write steroids off as a bad thing, but neither does it totally justify their use. Clearly Chris abstains from using steroids for a reason (though it is never really articulated), but he also makes some pretty compelling arguments as to why steroids should not be illegal. For example, he brings in numerous doctors and experts who downplay the harmful effects of steroid use and highlight the positive effects steroids have been proven to have in, for example, people with HIV.
In one of the strongest sections of the film, Chris points out the curiously vague criteria for what constitutes "performance-enhancing" drugs in the sports world. Why does Floyd Landis get in trouble for (supposedly) using steroids, but is not punished for using a homemade altitude chamber to train his body for high-altitude competition? Doesn't that also enhance his performance? And why is it that Tiger Woods' Lasik eye surgery (which increased his vision to 20/15 and no doubt made him a better golfer) is not considered "performance-enhancing"? Beyond sports, what about students who use Adderall and Ritalin as "study drugs" or musicians who use beta blockers to reduce performance anxiety? Is this cheating? In a world where any part or function of the human body can be enhanced or improved through surgery or medicine, where do we draw the line for what constitutes "cheating"? Indeed, we are now at a point where "gene doping" is the next frontier: for example, creating "double muscle" through genetic manipulation. Is it really practical to expect any sort of "natural" athlete to exist in the future?