Errol Morris’s acclaimed 1978 documentary The Gates of Heaven is foremost about pet cemeteries– but evolves into an intimate story about love, death and the “American dream.” Steve James’ 1994 Hoop Dreams is about the arduous journey of two NBA hopefuls growing up in the Chicago projects. Beyond basketball, the film delves into the issues surrounding race and social class systems.
Like the best documentaries, Chris Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American inadvertently becomes a story of greater poignancy. The filmmaker’s directorial debut sets out as a documentary about the prevalence of steroids in American culture but evolves into something more.
Bell and his two brothers grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., bombarded by the beefcake popular culture of the 1980s led by Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan and Sylvester Stallone, all of whom used steroids. Though an impressive repertoire of medical doctors, psychiatrists, trainers, steroid users, non-steroid users and politicians offer their expertise throughout the film, they lack the guileless elements that are present in Bell’s casual interactions with his family.
His emotional examination of his longtime active steroid using brothers “Smelly” (Mark) and “Mad Dog” (Mike) gives the film a voice that we hear and empathize with. Bell even admits to dabbling in steroids briefly, though he says he didn’t feel “morally right” while he took the drug, so he stopped. He doesn’t understand why his brothers feel differently. “Why are my brothers fine with steroids and I’m not?” Bell asks.
Mike Bell began using steroids in college with the goal of becoming a professional wrestler. Mark Bell started using the drug even earlier than Mike to further his dream of becoming the world’s ultimate power lifter. The Bell brothers reveal their steroid use frankly, almost to the point of sounding matter of fact.
In a heartbreaking exchange between Chris and his mother, Rosemary, who had been oblivious to her sons’ steroid use, he divulges that not only has he used steroids but his two brothers continue to use them. In tears, she asks, “Why did our boys feel they weren’t good enough?” It’s at these moments that Bigger, Stronger, Faster resonates with an unforgettable impact unattainable in fictional work.
Chris and both of his parents struggle watching Mike and Mark in a constant state of self-loathing, where they medicate themselves with anabolic steroids. “I love steroids and I’ll probably be on and off them for the rest of my life,” Mark says openly.
Capturing nuggets of brutal honesty makes a documentary film superior, yet anytime Chris gets close to the crux of the emotional upheaval within his family, the film cuts to popular culture distractions including images of Barry Bonds, shrunken testicles and female Olympians with sprouting facial hair.
Unlike great documentaries like Hoop Dreams, Bell shows too much resistance to the film morphing into a personal diary. He ends up relying more on the sarcastic first-person narrative style that Michael Moore, whose company produced this film, has already beaten into the ground.
BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER: THE SIDE EFFECTS OF BEING AMERICAN ( 2½ ) Directed by Chris Bell • Starring Chris Bell, Mark Bell and Mike Bell • PG-13, 105 min • At the Osio Cinemas.