Bigger, Stronger, Faster
Hard Issues... Rock Hard!

“Image is everything”—or so pitched American tennis legend Andre Agassi for Canon photography. Though the idea of “Image” obviously serves as a metaphor for the pictures that the Canon Rebel could produce, the marketing is equally obvious: from athletics to academics to politics, Image has not merely exceeded Content—at this point Image threatens to replace Content in a world without truth. This theme—of which steroid use and abuse in merely a symptom of the broader Image/Content dispute—forms the compelling foundation for Chris Bell’s new documentary regarding steroid abuse in the U.S.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster focuses on Chris Bell and his two brothers, Mark and Mike, who, while growing up in Poughkeepsie, New York, with that childhood dedication to emulating their heroes—Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, Rocky (Sylvester Stallone)—began lifting weights at an early age. All three brothers achieved a certain level of success, either in power-lifting, football, or professional wrestling.

Jay Cutler in Bigger, Stronger, FasterIt wasn’t until Chris’ older brother, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, went to the University of Cincinnati on a football scholarship that steroids were introduced into the equation. Clearly, they enhanced his progress, accelerating his endless goal of being bigger, stronger, and faster—and an addiction was born. It is worth noting that the honesty demonstrated by the Bell family is both refreshing and somewhat surprising, considering the personal nature and vulnerability of the issue.

According to the film, Mike grew up as the “black sheep” of the brotherly trio, struggling with harder drugs in addition to life’s disappointments in general. His identity is clearly immersersed in his achievements, body type, and self-delusion, rendering him shackled to a life of depression, alcohol, and drugs. He tells Chris “he was born to achieve greatness.” That single delusion forms the core of his paralysis in personal maturity and growth.

Chris’ younger brother, Mark “Smelly” Bell, achieved many of his power-lifting goals by using steroids. I found it particularly ironic that, while his parents openly disdain steroid use, they are shown cheering wildly when Mark sets a bench press record. Despite marriage, fatherhood, and a career as a successful football coach, he, too, is addicted to what the drug has made him to be. Chris, on the other hand, never used, and still questions the moral and social stigma associated with the drugs.

Personally, I found the film to be fascinating and extremely well done. Bell’s adroit investigation into every angle of the steroid issue appears to be well-researched, thorough, and correct. For instance, Bell’s research showed that only 17% of steroid users are athletes of any kind—which means that 83% of steroid users are ordinary men and women chasing that elusive Image.

In addition to the strength of his research, Bell asks the appropriate questions of the appropriate people and/or group representatives; also to Bell’s credit is his dedication to giving both sides of the issue an equal voice. It appears that little is left on the editing floor, à la Michael Moore. Fortunately, Bell is a producer/director who is searching, probing, investigating—and inviting the audience to join him. Important to note, however: this is not a preachy, agenda-driven, Mooreian “documentary.” In pure documentarian fashion, Bell presents the facts, trusting in the intelligence of the viewer to make an informed decision.

Unfortunately, many viewers may interpret Bell’s work as “Pro-Steroids,” as Roger Ebert did. Though Ebert rightly corrects himself, highlighting the greater theme of America’s damaging “Win-Win mentality,” I disagree with the notion that the movie is pro anything. It is a well-done, accurate, factual, and balanced documentary regarding the use and abuse of steroids. It seemed to me that Chris Bell may be wrestling to find the answers in his own mind, hoping that telling his own story would educate his audience and question the public self-righteousness that surrounds this issue.

Also to his credit, Bell deftly brings to light a few specific examples of glaring hypocrisy: the Olympic committee and its failure to set strict standards; Senator Waxman (the Senator who forced the steroids hearings, and whose astonishing ignorance is well worth the movie’s price of admission); and other politicians like Schwarzenegger—who not only used steroids to achieve his popularity and success, but still hosts a yearly body-building contest bulging with clearly ’roided contestants before returning to public condemnation of steroid use in true PC fashion. The public sentiment is ignorant and rabid, and I, for one, am deeply grateful and appreciate Bell’s chutzpah in exposing it.

Despite its controversial nature, Bigger, Stronger, Faster is intriguing and fascinating. My hope is that parents will watch it with their children, who are often the biggest losers when it comes to steroids. The saddest moment in the film is Bell’s interview with Don Hooten, a lobbyist whose teenage son committed suicide as a result of steroid-induced depression; Hooten is currently lobbying against steroid use in any form in this country, with a firm belief that steroid abuse caused his son’s depression.

When the audience is permitted (via camera) to enter the young man’s room, my heart was crushed. Left untouched, it’s reminiscent of any boy’s room—right down to the mud-stained baseball cleats still sitting where he left them the night he took his own life the year before. While this moment is touching and persuasive, Bell sensitively asks the hard questions, and continues to leave us torn between allowing pro athletes like Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Ben Johnson the right to enhance their careers, and keeping drugs like this as far from our children as possible. Don Hooten’s son is a tragedy, but is more likely the product of a broken system than of the peril of steroid use.

While Chris Bell demonstrates that steroids are no worse than any marketed drug, the haunting take-away from this film is America’s win-at-all-costs attitude that constantly fuels the desire to cheat to win. Men, like women, are told that to be a success you need to have money, power, fame, or that “perfect” look—even when the models we desire to look like are often a product of airbrushing and lighting. We are lied to in America; but these are acceptable lies that only hurt when we are caught (à la Bonds, Clemens, etc.), and then they become the moral cause of self-righteous media and self-serving politicians out to destroy the heroes that once made them cheer! This type of moralizing is counter-productive, and equally a product of the same pursuit of Image that causes the problem in the first place. Politicians like Waxman and sport talk show hosts know that votes and ratings are what boost their own image, and anyone that they can use to enhance it is fair game—no matter the cost to the athletes or their families.

I played college football, and though I did not use steroids, many of those with whom I competed used them to enhance their game. In spite of that, I never felt any animosity or jealousy, or believed they cheated for gain. I had my choices, and they had theirs—they were just a bit more willing to inherit the risks for the sake of gain, and I apparently was not. There are plenty of “legal” enhancements that have revolutionized every sport (including equipment like golf clubs, tennis racquets, and baseball gloves), destroying old records. I’m still not sure why certain drugs are okay while others are not.

In the long run, Bigger, Stronger, Faster is a film about a country that has lost its mooring, destroyed its identity, and is now looking to re-create itself through hubris, though smoke and mirrors. Image is indeed everything, and we are certainly paying the price. My thanks to Chris Bell for a balanced, honest, and controversial look at a persistent problem in America!

Bigger, Stronger, Faster is rated PG-13 for “thematic material involving drugs, language, some sexual content and violent images.” That’s true enough, but I believe the movie could be viewed by most age groups, with appropriate supervision… though some content will be a bit too intense for younger children!

Courtesy of a local publicist, Mike attended a press screening of Bigger, Stronger, Faster. Also be sure to read Mike’s interview with director Chris Bell.