You can only make so many Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens jokes before the actual seriousness of steroid use rears its ugly head, and Christopher Bell’s expansive, informative and sometimes unwieldy documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster* proves the issue to be a complex and embarrassing one to cut through. Complex because the effects and health risks of anabolic steroids are widely misunderstood — their drawbacks are indeed bad, but they’re not commonly the death medicine scared into our consciences. Perhaps more damaging, Bell suggests, is that the surging popularity of steroids speaks not only of American culture’s perverse obsession with winning at all costs but also its hypocritical acceptance of certain types of performance-enhancers (cortisone shots, LASIK eye surgery, for instance) and condemnation of others. That’s where embarrassment comes in — such mixed signals are confusing enough to allow cheaters to justify doping, Olympic committees to cover up drug test results, dietary supplement industries to go unregulated and a nation to refuse to look in the mirror at its distorted values and priorities.
Collecting interviews with everyone from medical experts to members of Congress to disgraced user athletes, putting himself in front of the camera and mashing it all up with a barrage of media (especially telling clips of juiced 80s incarnations of Arnold, Sly and the Hulkster), Bell does the Michael Moore thing, only with more humility and better investigative reporting skills. But it’s his focus on his own family, particularly two jock brothers who use steroids, that makes Bigger, Stronger, Faster* a surprisingly personal and emotional record, showing that ethical gray areas of individual morality, honor and competitive drive cannot be placed to the side with an asterisk.
Opens May 30