Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The 1980s saw an explosion of butt-kicking in America, observes Christopher Bell in the raucously funny and surprisingly insightful prologue to his debut documentary, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*." And as a 12-year-old kid from a loving but undeniably short and doughy family in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Bell and his brothers were particularly susceptible to the message. As he reminds us, the don't-mess-with-the-U.S. Reagan years were an overheated response to '70s downers such as the Iran hostage crisis. But for the Bell boys, it was simply a call to ripped, bulging arms.
What began simply as a documentary about steroid use in America, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" (The asterisk refers to the movie's subtitle: "The Side-Effects of Being American") turns out to be a surprisingly comprehensive and insightful look at a culture predicated on might and obsessed with achieving success at any cost. This, more than rampant steroid use among professional athletes, is what makes Bell's documentary so timely and ultimately so sobering. What Bell and co-writers and producers Alex Buono (who also shot the movie) and Tamsin Rawady discover -- through countless hours of interviews, news, movie and cartoon footage as well as home video of the Bell family -- is a country in which it's literally impossible to win if one plays by the rules, because winners almost always cheat.
For Chris Bell, the only Bell brother not on steroids, the discovery that his heroes -- Arnold, Sly, the Hulkster -- all relied on performance enhancers to get where they got came as a shock and a letdown. Coupled with the fact that his brothers' experiences reinforce the notion that giving up steroids would effectively remove them from various athletic pursuits, he grapples with the issue of whether it's better to play fair and lose or join the club for a fighting chance. It's an issue close to all three brothers' hearts as they grew up struggling with feelings of inadequacy that haunt the eldest brother, Mad Dog, to this day. (Mad Dog's failure to make it in pro wrestling led to a serious problem with drugs and alcohol.)
Yet while Bell still considers the use of steroids in professional sports cheating, he is more incensed by Congress seemingly spending more time debating steroid use in baseball than discussing Hurricane Katrina or the war in Iraq.
"Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" works so assiduously to prove that the level playing field is a myth that at times the sheer number of examples threatens to overwhelm it; it would have worked at half the size. (Like the nation, it's a documentary on steroids.) Overall, though, it's a fascinating and unexpectedly profound and melancholy meditation on what we have become as a country and on the misguided obsessions that made us this way.