Mention steroids and the images of vein-popping, muscle-bulging athletes raging toward illicit victory -- and, increasingly, controversial, high-profile government hearings -- spring to mind. One thing that might not seem immediately relevant is a typical American family grappling with its own interpersonal dynamics, issues of self-image and the yardsticks by which we as a culture measure success.
Yet this is exactly the unexpected linchpin of "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*," an involved look at the complicated issue of performance enhancers. Director and co-writer Christopher Bell, a champion weightlifter as a teenager, uses his own family members and their relationship with steroid use as the emotional core and centering premise of the film.
The film's biggest surprise is its refusal to point fingers and simply expose the easy villainy of drug use in sports and the health dangers that come with it. Rather, Bell and his collaborators attempt to take a longer view of the issue, pointing out the ways in which steroid use, and the thicket of ethical problems that goes along with it, becomes part of a bigger-reaching conversation about attitudes in America toward competition and winning.
"I don't really know what to think," said Bell of steroid use. " 'Do I think it's cheating? Do I think it's good or bad?' That's why I made a film that's kind of down the middle, to let people make their own decisions."
After finishing USC film school, Bell, at 35 still a self-described "gym rat," was trying to break into the entertainment business when he took a job at Gold's Gym in Venice. While he was working there, he, by chance, reconnected with former film school classmate Alex Buono. Through Buono, Bell met Tamsin Rawady, and the trio would collaborate during the three-year process of creating "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*." The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
Bell admits to the influence of first-person documentarians such as Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, yet it may be best to think of "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" as post-blog moviemaking -- focused on a single issue and rooted in personal experience, but able to zoom out to look at the broader context of that issue as well.
The sound-bite, and not necessarily accurate, description of "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" is to call it the "pro-steroid doc." Rawady makes clear, though, that in crafting the film's mix of interviews and information, they tried to avoid such an easy pro or anti designation. "It's been so one-sided the other way, to the anti-steroids side, that we're just trying to present the middle, but it's been so slanted to begin with that it seems like we're pro-steroids," she said. "For me, I don't want people to inject themselves with a drug to achieve greatness. I wouldn't want it to seem we're trying to tell people to go out and do these drugs. We're just trying to point out the hypocrisy involved in this, and take it beyond the medical elements of a drug to exploring something deeper."
While some viewers may choose to argue with the way in which the film diminishes the oft-touted dangers of steroid use -- though Bell and his collaborators feel they present the facts to back up their claims -- it would be tougher to deny the powerful drama that plays out in Bell's family knotted around steroids and want of winning. With Bell's two athletic, steroid-using brothers -- one finds relative triumph (becoming a small-scale weightlifting champion), and the other tries to move forward after a suicide attempt -- his parents struggle to hold their family together.
"A lot of families grapple with a lot of problems," Bell said, "and in our family it wasn't alcohol or drug abuse or child abuse or anything like that. It was steroids."
Bell's parents, in particular his mother, who was previously unaware of her sons' relationships to steroids, came to see the process of making the film as therapeutic and healing.
Throughout production, Bell's backward baseball cap, baggy sports jerseys and muscles had a disarming effect on interview subjects. He was able to break down disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson's notorious defensiveness by chatting about bench-pressing, and he managed to catch congressmen involved in steroid hearings embarrassingly uninformed. Bell's bodybuilder physique also garnered the filmmakers a brief cameo from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"Some people would ask if he was the real interviewer, and he would have to explain, 'I'm Chris, I'm the director of the film.' " Buono said. "And I think certainly in most cases it worked to our advantage, we could get something honest out of people."
Though many viewers may be caught off-guard by the riposte of "Bigger Faster Stronger*" to what the filmmakers see as the alarmist attitudes regarding steroid use most often portrayed by the media and legislatures alike, the film's guarded ambivalence to the issue may actually be in line with the attitudes of many sports fans, said Will Leitch, editor of the Deadspin sports blog and author of "God Save the Fan."
"It's not that fans don't care about steroids or feel that we should live in this bionic world where people can do whatever they want," Leitch said, "but I think they've come to terms and made their peace with it a little bit better than your average media member. There's a moralizing aspect that is there among media that I don't think is really there among fans."
In finding room for ambiguity and discourse where many people likely thought there was only moral certainty, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*" places the entire discussion within an unexpectedly larger context.
"I think it's about acknowledging a problem in our culture, and this isn't the problem. This is a symptom of a problem," Buono said. "We really wanted to point out how steroids are a metaphor for a lot of things in our culture. If we could address that, we might get somewhere."