January 29, 2009 -- This documentary, more than any other this year, challenges viewers assumptions about the way the world is portrayed in the media. I learned more from it than I did any other 2008 documentary I saw. This in-your-face film may make you squirm, but that is one of the things any good documentary should do. This is one of the best documentary films, along with Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, of 2008. “Dear Zachary,” by the way, is my pick for best documentary of the year. Most critics picked “Man on Wire” for best documentary of the year, but I see more than enough self-centered, self-indulgent artists every year to revel in a documentary about yet another one of those tiresome creatures.
“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” challenges popular hypocrisies and preconceptions about steroid use in the United States among amateur and professional athletes. Chris Bell, a former steroid user, puts himself and his family, particularly his two brothers, Mike and Mark, under the microscope. He also targets some popular sports, entertainment and political icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Floyd Landis, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sylvester Stallone, Lyle Alzado, Carl Lewis, Hulk Hogan and others. The documentary challenges the notion that steroid use causes cancer or suicide, as has been claimed by its detractors. It also challenges the notion that steroid use is inherently unfair and unsportsmanlike.
The film makes the argument that some steroid detractors are making emotional, unsubstantiated claims and others are just plain naive. The steroid use defenders come out looking more rational, at least as far as adult use is concerned. The film demonstrates how easy it is to get steroids, both legally and illegally. This film supports its case with powerful arguments and authoritative sources. It is thought-provoking. It ruthlessly exposes the hypocrisy in our culture, which on the one hand promotes fairness and sportsmanship, but on the other hand condones winning by any means necessary. It argues that sports heroes want to have their cake and eat it too. They preach against steroid use, while secretly, or not so secretly, using steroids.
Much of the film is highly personal in nature with the filmmaker talking frankly about his own steroid use and taking a close look at steroid use by his brothers. The Bell brothers were all weight lifters and are interested in careers in which steroid use flourishes: weight-lifting, football and professional wrestling. The temptation to use steroids in these sports, and the prevalence of steroid use in these sports is explored on a personal level as well as on a statistical or abstract level. In the end, Bell's parents, who both condemn steroid use, nevertheless cheer wildly for their son Mark as he beats his personal best in a weight lifting competition, with the aid of steroids. This film made me reconsider a number of my preconceptions about steroid users. This film rates an A.
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