One of the most entertaining films of Full Frame was Christopher Bell’s Bigger Stronger Faster* (IMDB), which takes the steroids hysteria dominating sports media over the last five years and turns it on its head. Using a breezy, pop-culture savvy style reminiscent of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Bell identifies many of the hypocrisies that inform the coverage of steroids while also arguing that steroid use is symptomatic of a uniquely American ideology of success. Bell personalizes this story by looking at his family’s experiences with steroids while also interviewing a number of the more significant participants in the steroids debate–at least those who were willing to appear on camera.
Bell’s film is pretty effective when it uses popular culture texts to challenge some of the biggest myths about the effects of steroids on users. Panic about steroids is compared to earlier cinematic warnings about the dangers of marijuana via a clip from Reefer Madness that Bell juxtaposes against a scene from a movie about steroids. Both films play to our fears of death, and especially our desires to protect children from physical harm. And while Bell is able to assemble a nice selection of doctors who are willing to appear on camera to assert that we don’t yet know the long-term effects of steroid use, I’m not fully convinced that the film offers sufficient evidence to suggest that we shouldn’t worry about those long-term effects. There is a segment featuring archival interviews with and about former Oakland Raiders star Lyle Alzado, who attributed his early death to steroid use, but Bell’s attempt to undermine steroid use as a cause in Alzado’s death doesn’t quite address why there is such concen about steroid use by athletes.
Bell is pretty effective in highlighting the hypocrisy of major league baseball when it came to steroids, noting that the sport was pretty willing to turn a blind eye to steroid use when it was financially beneficial during the home run chase of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were slamming homers and mugging for the camera across the country. And he also presents a sympathetic interview with Tour de France competitor Floyd Landis who had his title taken away based on allegations that he was doping. also instructive were interviews with former Olympic track athletes Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis. These scenes work well to contextualize not only how pervasive steroids and HGH are in pro and Olympic sports but also how they are connected to the ways in which pro sports, especially, has exploded as a business in recent years.
However, Bell’s attempt to link this desire to get bigger, stronger, and faster to uniquely American ideologies of capitalism rings a little false. To be sure, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appears briefly in one of the film’s funniest shots, has become the physical embodiment of one version of the American Dream, and wrestlers such as Hulk Hogan espoused American values of hard work, even while doing steroids on the side. And, yes, the body image of GI Joe has changed radically since the 1950s, but I’m not sure this can be read as uniquely American. In fact, the identification with Hollywood stars such as Arnie and Sly Stallone is very much a global phenomenon with Rambo movies opening in Brisbane, Beirut, and Boston on the same day with similar audience enthusiasm. And the doping in Olympic sports is clearly a global phenomenon. That being, said the importance of understanding why young men, mostly, feel compelled to use steroids is useful, and this is where Bell’s film may have the most to offer us.
Here, Bell draws from his own childhood experiences, growing up with two brothers. He describes an early childhood in which all three brothers were bullied or teased for being overweight or unathletic. All three brothers respond by bulking up, and both of Bell’s brothers openly confess to using steroids and report no major physical consequences. Both acknowledge that family members–wives, their parents–want them to quit. And yet, they are not at all apologetic for steroid use and even point to th benefits it has provided them. This recognition of the cause of steroid use is certainly valuable, but I’m not sure that the film is self-reflective enough to address whether steroid use has truly been beneficial. Bell doesn’t really track down anyone who regrets steroid use and even seems to overstate the degree to which young boys who were teased will view them as an option.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster* is a welcome antidote to some of the hysteria surrounding talk about steroids in the national media, but I’m not quite sure that it offers a compelling alternative. Simply dismissing the anti-steroids crusaders as worrying unnecessarily isn’t really fair and reduces some of the complications associated with this issue.
Update 12/15/08: A few months after I saw BSF, Mike Bell, one of the three brothers featured in the documentary, died at the age of 37. According to what I’ve read so far, no cause of death has been named. But you can find more information at the blog, Under the Ring and in the Poughkeepsie Journal.