Documentary scores as it shines a light on the hypocrisy in our win-at-all-costs culture.

By Jim Buzinski

Among the questions filmmaker Christopher Bell sets out to answer in his documentary “Bigger, Stronger, Faster” is a seemingly simply one: Why are anabolic steroids illegal in the U.S.?
Bell, whose brilliant and highly entertaining film opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday and wider June 6, tried performance-enhancing drugs for a short time, but stopped because he thought it immoral to take them. His film — in which we hear from elite athletes, doctors, ethicists, lawyers, politicians, journalists and everyday steroid users and see a hyper-muscular steer that might presage genetic modification of humans — calls that decision into question. It’s a must-see for any athlete or sports fan.

These “before and after” shots of filmmaker Chris Bell were taken the same day.

“Bigger” tackles the win-at-all-costs culture in the U.S. with a focus on performance enhancement (of which steroids are a part). It asks, for example, why Tiger Woods getting LASIK to achieve better-than-perfect vision is OK, but a baseball player taking steroids is not. Both athletes are using performance-enhancing techniques that greatly aid them in their sport, yet one is celebrated and the other condemned and made the subject of Congressional hearings.
I have long felt that anabolic steroid use should be legal for adults in the U.S. (they have been illegal only since 1990), and that the problem is abuse and not simply use. I think there would need to be regulation in sports for competitive reasons, but that is for another column.Abuse is a problem with any drug, including legal ones like alcohol, tobacco and prescription drugs, whose negative side effects from misuse are much more pernicious than those from steroids. A chart in the film, citing federal government statistics, shows a combined 500,000 annual deaths attributable to tobacco and alcohol versus three from steroids. In the gay community among HIV-positive people, steroids have been literal life savers (legal when prescribed by a doctor), helping stave off the horrible wasting that occurs with AIDS.
Bell’s subject is serious but the treatment is rollicking and very funny, making perfect use of footage spanning 30 years of sports, culture and society. The entertainment value is no coincidence since producer Jim Czarnecki was responsible for “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Bowling for Columbine.” I loved the part where a fitness photographer details how “before and after” photos for magazines are often taken the same day, and uses Bell to illustrate the point. There is also a hilarious segment where U.S. Congressman Henry Waxman, who chaired the famous hearings on steroids in baseball, is interviewed by Bell and clearly has no idea what he’s talking about; Waxman keeps asking his aide for answers, to the point where Bell starts directing his questions to the aide.
A subtext that is woven throughout the film is Bell’s personal story and that of his two brothers, Mike (“Mad Dog”) and Mark (“Smelly”), and their parents. The boys grew up admiring musclemen like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone and mimicked the moves of pro wrestlers, but they lacked the genetic gifts to realize their dreams. Mike and Mark are each longtime steroid users, using them in Mike’s case for a career on the fringes of pro wrestling and in Mark’s as his pursues powerlifting glory. The family’s relationship is often poignant and shows the grip the desire to be the best has in America.
Hypocrisy dominates the film. Schwarzenegger, an admitted steroid user who has no regrets about using them in his bodybuilding career, is named to head the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, the same year steroids are outlawed by Congress in 1990. Stallone, in his “Rocky” films, is seen building his body by running in snow, chopping wood and beating sides of beef; in reality, Sly is a juicer and has praised the wonders of Human Growth Hormone. Taking performance-enhancing drugs certainly did not hurt their careers, which makes the anti-steroid lectures given to jocks seem that much more hollow. As the film asks, “When you discover that your heroes have broken all the rules, do you follow the rules or do you follow your heroes?”
I also learned things, such as that in 1988 Carl Lewis and about 200 other U.S. Olympians flunked drug tests, only to have them reclassified as inadvertent users by the U.S. Olympic Committee to allow them to compete in Seoul. Ironically, Lewis was awarded the gold medal in the 100 meters that year when Ben Johnson was disqualified after failing a post-race drug test. Lewis and Johnson are both interviewed by Bell and neither comes off particularly well.
Sen. Joe Biden is shown declaring that the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes is “simply un-American.” After watching Bell build his case, one can only agree they are as American as mom and apple pie.

Update: Two weeks after the film opened, Christian Boeving, a fitness model quoted in the film as having used steroids, lost his job as an endorser for a supplement company.