Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Bigger Stronger Faster*


Are athletes who use anabolic steroids cheating? Are the drugs detrimental to one's health? The documentary BIGGER STRONGER FASTER*: THE SIDE EFFECTS OF BEING AMERICAN doesn't always provide the expected answers to these questions.

Director and narrator Chris Bell is a weightlifter struggling with the ethics of steroid use. His two weightlifting brothers take them. He's tried steroids but feels there's something wrong about using such performance enhancements. With BIGGER STRONGER FASTER Bell looks for answers regarding the effects of steroids and the culture's obsession with perfection.

The micro purpose of BIGGER STRONGER FASTER is to explore whether anabolic steroid use is as dangerous as it is claimed to be. Bell speaks to those in the bodybuilding community who don't buy into what they consider unsupported statements of steroid use's irreversible consequences.

Presenting his information as a less strident and glib Michael Moore, Bell makes an apologist's case that is neutral toward steroids, if not an implicit endorsement of them. Considering that he expeditiously discredits the only anti-steroids doctor and layman interviewed in the film, some doubt is cast over the strength and evenhandedness of his arguments. Nevertheless, Bell succeeds at muddying the waters when it comes to what we know versus what we're told in the film about the drugs.

BIGGER STRONGER FASTER'S macro purposes are to determine where the line is between cheating and fairness and to examine what Bell believes to be a uniquely American mindset to be the best no matter the cost.

Why are using steroids to build muscle and quicken recovery times deemed unacceptable while Lasik eye surgery to improve vision is permissible? After all, both give competitive advantages. The naysayers would quickly point out that individuals aren't risking deleterious long-term effects on their well-being (or death) with vision correction. Thus, pro sports administrators don't need to legislate against it, but keep in mind the film proposes that the use of steroids is not as damaging as popularly portrayed. The documentary doesn't, nor should it be expected to, resolve the matter, but it raises big, intriguing questions that rarely, if ever, come up in the hubbub about steroid use in professional athletics, particularly Major League Baseball.

Bell is on shakier ground when he theorizes that performance enhancement is an indelibly American obsession. He is correct that our national striving for greatness emphasizes a winner above all else mentality, but Bell overreaches in applying this exclusively to Americans. After all, one of his inspirations, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was an Austrian citizen when he began winning bodybuilding titles, and blood doping isn't limited to American cyclists.

Bell wonders why many of the people in the film and the culture at large refuse to be satisfied with the natural limitations of their bodies. Why isn't fulfilling one's potential good enough? It's on this individual level, when it plays like a personal essay, that BIGGER STRONGER FASTER is most compelling.

The use of performance enhancing drugs in sports is a hot button issue that can't afford room for nuances lest some try to exploit loopholes for gain. Bell's uncertainty about the ethical dilemmas feels like a genuine and appropriate response. Agree or disagree with him, his documentary gives sports fans a lot to chew on.

Grade: B

(Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

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