Movie review: 'Bigger Stonger Faster*' shows the pains with the gains

  • Article by: PETER SCHILLING , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 5, 2008 - 3:10 PM

A powerful and sobering look at the side effects of our win-at-all-costs culture.

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'Bigger Stronger Faster*'

Christopher Bell is confused. In "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*," his documentary on steroid use in the United States, we first see Bell and his two brothers as children, aping their heroes, Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone. Look at them now: in their 30s, unfamous, struggling to get by as we all do. None of them ever realized their dream of pro wrestling, yet did everything their heroes told them to do, from praying to eating well and working out. What went wrong?

Perhaps, Bell wonders, nothing. "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" is less a story of steroids, and more a story of America's obsession with victory. Unlike Michael Moore, Bell's obvious influence, he approaches his subject with genuine bewilderment, and one really gets a sense that his agenda is to simply and honestly explore this issue. Bell's eagerness to expose uncomfortable truths, even within himself and his family, makes this the most brutally honest film I've seen in many years.

We follow Bell as he travels on a coast-to-coast tour through a hopped-up America. First, we meet his brothers: Mike (Mad Dog) Bell, the self-destructive older brother who dreams of being famous (and whose steroid use seems to be the least of his problems), and Mark (Smelly) Bell, the youngest, who uses steroids to help his weightlifting, but who also has a happy family life and a great job as a high school football coach. Then there are the parents, who have tried to impart kindness and wisdom to their children and who watch in utter disbelief as they grow into troubled giants.

"Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" moves at a rapid clip, thanks to masterful editing and a cast of incredible characters. We meet the guy with the world's largest biceps, a father whose steroid-using son committed suicide, the weightlifter who lives in his van and hopes fame is right around the corner. Then there are the pious congresspeople, the pious track stars, the pious doctors and all the people who are condemned by the same. Some of the people on performance enhancement drugs will surprise you ... such as the classical musicians.

"In a culture where second place is the first loser, the real heroes are the ones who win at all costs," Bell suggests. This, then, is the great conceit of "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*": Take away the steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, and what you have is still something destructive and unhealthy.

Give Bell credit, too, for tackling a truly controversial subject. Where Moore preaches to his growing choir about the president or health care problems, there are few among us who come into this on the side of steroids. "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" is that rare film that truly challenges its audience.

  • BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER*

    ★★★ 1/2 out of four stars

    Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving drugs, language, some sexual content and violent images.

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