I went into the new documentary "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" expecting an exposé of steroid use in sports. What I got was something far more provocative and ambivalent: a meditation both personal and political on our culture's obsession with winning at any cost. The subtitle of Christopher Bell's movie—"The Side Effects of Being American"—perfectly reflects the range of this funny, disturbing and complex tale.
Bell grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., idolizing Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Hulk Hogan, whose admission of steroid use shattered the filmmaker's illusions. Both his brothers, "Mad Dog" and "Smelly," suffered from crippling feelings of inadequacy and ended up on steroids; their struggles to succeed at sports are poignant tales of dashed dreams.
Bell disapproves of steroid use, but the deeper he researched the subject the more he began to suspect that its public demonization rested on wobbly science, skewed moralism and political posturing. We see Joe Biden denounce the use of steroids as "un-American"—but what does that mean when everybody's using them? And what does it say about the U.S. military, which supplies amphetamines to its fighter pilots? Bell's net keeps getting wider: he compares the deregulated $24 billion dietary-supplement industry to "snake oil" and asks us to ponder why some performance enhancers—Tiger Woods's Lasik surgery, for instance, which gave him perfect vision—are legal while others are not. When I emerged from this rousing doc, I didn't know what to think—but I had plenty to think about. It'll shake up your beliefs not just about steroids but about competition, hypocrisy, body obsession and American notions of masculinity.