Bigger, Stronger, Faster (Magnolia Pictures, PG-13)

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film_bigger_sm.jpgSport has always been about superlatives: you get the gold medal for crossing the finish line first or throwing the discus further than the other guys.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius" which translates to "Faster, Higher, Stronger." In America, our national motto should be "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," according to director/writer Chris Bell, whose first feature film carries that title. I don't entirely buy his argument, but Bell's film offers a wide-ranging look at the use of performance-enhancing drugs in America, and manages to avoid the simplistic "just say no" message in favor of a more mature questioning about whether steroid use is worth all the time and energy spent condemning it.

Sport has always been about superlatives: you get the gold medal for crossing the finish line first or throwing the discus further than the other guys. Similarly, movie and television stars are generally better looking than the rest of us, and if the current look for men is more Sylvester Stallone than Humphrey Bogart, so be it. Women have suffered for years by comparison to absurdly thin models and movie stars, and now it seems men are sharing our pain. It's a competitive world out there, and some people will do anything to get an edge, whether to make the team or look more attractive. If this involves taking drugs, that's neither inexplicable nor a mortal sin, although it may be a violation of the rules of a particular sport.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster is really two films in one. The first is a documentary about performance-enhancing drugs, primarily anabolic steroids, with interviews, news footage, movie clips and animations. What you will learn from all this is that no one really knows if steroid use is harmful or not because the research has not been done. The talking heads and newspaper headlines which attribute Lyle Alzado's brain tumor and Taylor Hooton's suicide to steroid use are talking through their hat. And steroids have legitimate medical uses, for instance to help AIDS patients gain weight; some people have been taking medically prescribed steroids for years, so if they are as harmful as the crusaders claim, some serious ill effects should have been documented by now.

This part of the film presents so much information so rapidly that it's almost overwhelming. There's enough material for a full-length documentary, which would have allowed Bell to present the material at a more leisurely pace and given the viewer time to absorb it all. It's loaded with gems which fly by all too fast: Floyd Landis showing off his homemade altitude chamber; Wade Exum displaying the letter which informed Carl Lewis he was ineligible for the 1988 Olympics due to a positive drug test (the U.S. Olympic Committee invented the category of "inadvertent use" to overrule Lewis's positive test and allow him to compete); a demonstration of how G.I. Joe action figures have become more muscular and cut over the years.

The other half of the film is a very personal look at steroid use in Bell's own family. His older brother began using steroids (obtained from his uncle) while playing Division I football, then left college to try his hand on the professional wrestling circuit, without ever rising higher than a "jobber" (the guy who gets beat up). His younger brother also took steroids during a brief stint at professional wrestling, then settled down to marriage and family life while running a gym and competing in powerlifting. Both continue to take steroids, although neither has a livelihood on the line (unlike, say, Marion Jones or Barry Bonds), and both are sufficiently ashamed to conceal their use from family and friends.

Bell's efforts to untangle this riddle provide a framework for the film, which argues that an out-of-whack American culture that worships big muscles and athletic success is responsible for his brothers' continued steroid use. This premise is shaky at best; when has popular culture ever been sensible or realistic? The question Bell should be asking is why both brothers are unable to adjust to normal adult life; most people learn at some point that not all our youthful dreams will come true, but we enjoy what life does offer, like our families and our careers. We also know that most physical capabilities diminish with age, and using drugs to forestall this process can only be described as deluding yourself. I'm no fan of either Sylvester Stallone or Barry Bonds, but blaming their status as cultural icons for the inability of two average guys to grow up and live in the real world is just plain silly.

The family half of the film could also have made a film by itself. Bell has a gift to get his subjects to reveal themselves, and even when confronting difficult topics is never intrusive or confrontational. His father is remarkably candid in addressing his sons' drug use, and his mother, although in obvious pain, maintains her composure to put her finger on the real problem: Trying to be someone else never works. Taking all the drugs in the world won't make you another Arnold Schwarzenegger if you don't have the raw material to begin with, and it's a loser's game to try. | Sarah Boslaugh

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