In Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American, director Christopher Bell explores what he believes to be a uniquely American paradox: we will do whatever it takes to be #1 but vilify those who get caught “cheating.” Cheating in this case refers to the use of steroids, a subject that should be very familiar to sports fans. In his first major film effort Bell has crafted an expansive and comprehensive look into what drives us to be winners at all costs and how our rhetoric surrounding steroids is defined by paranoia and hypocrisy.
For body-obsessed males in the 1980s the message from the media, entertainment industry and politicians was clear: eat your vegetables, work hard, and play fair and you’ll be the best. Growing up in an overweight family in Poughkeepsie, NY Chris Bell and his two brothers joined the legion of young males kneeling at the altar of Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger as they competed in multiple sports and amateur bodybuilding to build self esteem. What they quickly learned is that those at the top of their game used performance enhancers and that the ceiling was low for those that refused. In this intensely personal story, Bell takes the audience through the lives of his brothers as they each try to satisfy their need for greatness and navigate the moral dilemma of doing things clean in second place or doing things dirty and being #1.
During the film’s 2 hour runtime we are taken on an entertaining journey from Bell’s family life in Poughkeepsie up to the highest levels of Congress as he deftly picks apart the rhetoric that surrounds this highly controversial subject. The cast of characters provide a robust cross-section of Americans, from politicians to washed-up bodybuilders and everyone in between. What unfolds is an even-handed and refreshingly agenda-free presentation of a topic that polarizes the American public. Are steroids the next heroin, or are the dangers on par with any legal medication? Are athletes that use steroids simply villainous cheaters, or should they be allowed to use substances that allow them to push the limits of human achievement? These questions, among many others, are left to us to ponder. This film is aimed at provoking thought, not arguing for or against steroid use, and audience members will likely leave the theater with more questions than answers. You can’t really ask for more from a documentary.
Even though the sport of mixed martial arts is not directly addressed in this film, it is no less timely or relevant given the rampant steroid scandals that characterized the sport in 2007. As Bell interviews Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter that was disgraced at the 1988 Olympics for testing positive for steroids, one cannot help but think of Sean Sherk and how much he has suffered from the stigma attached to performance enhancers. Sherk held the UFC lightweight title but was eventually stripped of this honor after testing positive for nandrolone in his defense against Hermes Franca in July of 2007. Fans immediately scorned Sherk, who maintains his innocence, and what was once a promising MMA career has been damaged immeasurably. As Sherk can no doubt testify, the taint of steroid use (or alleged use) is not easily removed. Given the immense pressure put upon athletes to perform almost superhuman feats for our amusement, the fairness of these punitive circumstances warrants debate. Bell’s thesis, if nothing else, is that the use of steroids is a vastly complex moral issue that all athletes and sports fans must navigate. Bigger, Stronger, Faster is an excellent addition to the national discourse on how fairness in sports competition factors in to our cultural identity.
Jason Tiefel, editor