"Bigger, Stronger, Faster", the new documentary from Chris Bell, and produced by many of the people who have worked on Michael Moore's documentaries, is a very entertaining, level-handed look at the use of steroids in America.
"Bigger" is better than your average documentary for two key reasons. Chris Bell is a likable, very real guy and he guides us through this maze of information much like he probably learned about it in the first place, giving us an in depth look into the use of steroids and how they have affected both the practice and perception of sports in America, and to a lesser extent, the world.
The second, and perhaps more important reason this film sticks out is because it comes from a personal place in Chris' life. As he quickly explains during the beginning of the film, he was the middle of three children, all boys, who grew up with a loving, overweight mother and a loving, but busy with work father. In an attempt to stand out from the rest of the kids, each of the brothers decides to take up weight lifting and try to become famous as wrestlers, hoping to follow the likes of their heroes, Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger into the limelight. They each transform their chubby bodies into bulky muscle powerhouses, but the fame is still fleeting.
Chris' older brother, Mark, actually makes it into the WWE, but his role is that of the guy who always gets beaten up by the more powerful and more famous wrestlers. He doesn't last long. So he starts to take steroids.
Chris decides the way to make it into the limelight is to move to Southern California, to be closer to the action, and the auditions. He naturally ends up at Venice Beach and gets a job working in Gold's Gym, the place made famous by many weightlifters and body builders, by Schwarzenegger and Stallone. In a particularly telling moment, Chris speaks with one of the gym members, a man well past his prime who continues to work out at the gym, and lives in his small van in the gym parking lot. You can tell from the expression on Chris' face he sees the similarities between them as he looks at the guys living quarters. You can almost see him pray that he won't end up in the same situation; homeless, working out, continuing to hope for stardom.
Chris' younger brother, Mike, had development problems growing up, so he decided to follow his other brothers into weightlifting and bodybuilding. This focus clearly helped him to improve his life and his attention to detail, but he also decides to try to improve the workouts through the use of steroids.
Chris knows his brothers use steroids, but he has stayed away from them. He wonders why one of three children would feel the need to do things the 'right' way, the harder way, and stay away from the drugs? This is what leads him on the journey through this documentary.
The best scenes involve Chris and his family. On a visit home, he talks to his mom, a perfectly likable, overweight, middle-aged woman who spends her life as a stay-at-home mom. As they talk, she makes a batch of her famous bar cookies for a local high school sports team. It is unclear why she still makes these for the local high school, but it is clear the bars are both very good and not low fat. Chris claims his mother doesn't know that his brother use steroids. She may not admit it, but you can tell she knows. Late in the film, Chris has dinner with his brothers and mom and dad and steers the conversation towards steroids, hoping that his brothers will finally admit it to their parents. Mom asks a few questions, giving the brothers an opportunity to come clean. But they keep their secret. And so does mom.
As he meets with and talks to his brothers, we learn each of their stories and they couldn't be more different.
But Chris also seeks to understand the influence of steroids throughout sports. He speaks with many people, both pro and con, amateur and professional, and it appears that everyone is using some sort of enhancement. As the tagline for the film states "if everyone is doing something, can it be illegal?"
He talks about how heartbroken he was when he learned Hulk Hogan was using steroids, despite all of the famous wrestler's encouragement to get bigger through hard work. He talks about former NFL player Lyle Alzado's sickness, which the NFL Player attributed to the use of steroids. Interestingly, the footage from an interview used in the film features Maria Shriver in her pre-Mrs. Ahnuld career. He talks about Stallone and interviews both Carl Lewis and Floyd Landis. These moments, interspersed with graphics, and other amusing methods of presenting the message, combined with the personal side of the story, make for compelling viewing.
There are also a few scenes from an old after school special featuring Ben Affleck dealing with the side effects of using steroids. These scenes provide a welcome moment of laughter because they are so over the top and heavy handed.
I think Chris may have actually found his entry into the limelight. I could easily see him parlaying this film into a television series or series of specials, ala Morgan Spurlock. They have similar personalities and Spurlock has made a number of films and season 3 of "30 Days", the series of documentaries he makes for FX is currently airing. Chris is an extremely pleasant, likable person who clearly listens to his subjects, whatever their position, taking everything in. As he presents both sides of the argument, he appears to be genuinely interested in what they have to say, waiting for them to finish and for his mind to process before forming an opinion of his own.