July 25, 2008

‘Bigger Stronger Faster’

Ripped abs. Glistening biceps. Rock-hard pecs.

What boy wouldn't want to look like Conan the Barbarian?

Certainly that was the desire of Christopher Bell and his two brothers, Mike ("Mad Dog") and Mark ("Stinky").

They were fat, unathletic kids who began emulating their hero, Hulk Hogan, by training in the basement of their home in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

They lifted weights. They choreographed fight routines. They got buff. They played high school sports. And they envisioned a future of fame and fortune in professional wrestling.

But 20 years later, Mad Dog and Stinky are professionally and personally unfulfilled. Emotionally they remain crippled by their fantasies of athletic greatness.

And they're both steady users of anabolic steroids, which they take because, they say, the drugs will help them to be as great as they want to be.

In "Bigger Stronger Faster," Christopher Bell offers an almost encyclopedic look at steroids, which have been demonized in congressional hearings and from the presidential podium yet seem to be standard operating procedure in professional sports.

He gets into the medical aspects and the political ramifications of the war on steroids.

Taking a page from rabble-rousing documentarists Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, Bell at one point even tries to get an audience with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to discuss the steroid use of the bodybuilder-turned-actor-turned-politician.

But giving his film real emotional kick are the personal stories of Mad Dog and Stinky, two average guys chasing a media-fed dream that will only result in disappointment.

Subtitled "The Side Effects of Being American," Bell's film looks at our national fascination with characters who are bigger than life and marvels at the hypocrisy that condemns steroids while celebrating the achievements the drugs make possible.

"I was raised to believe that cheaters never prosper," Bell tells us. "But in America, cheaters always prosper."

And why single out steroids? Bell asks why Barry Bonds taking steroids to improve his performance at the plate is any different from Tiger Woods having eye surgery to improve his depth perception. Or a bicyclist sleeping in an altitude chamber to boost his red blood cell count. Or concert musicians taking beta blockers to reduce performance anxiety.

Why is Bonds "cheating," while those others aren't?

"Bigger Stronger Faster" comes to an almost too-painful emotional head when Bell brings his two brothers together with their parents to admit for the first time that they're on steroids.

Mom is devastated. "Why did our boys not feel they were good enough?" she says through tears.

That's the most important question this film asks. And one you'll be pondering long after leaving the theater.



3 stars

Director: Chris Bell

Cast: Chris Bell, Mike Bell, Mark Bell, Carl Lewis, Ben Johnson

Rated: PG-13 for drug use, strong language, some sexual content, violent images


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