Grade: B+

One might imagine that a documentary about the crusade against steroid use among American athletes at all levels would be a simplistic cautionary tale, and a rather dull one at that. But “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” subverts expectations by being not only complex but surprisingly engaging even as it raises serious questions.

Using archival footage and a wide array of interviews with medical experts, activists, politicians and some of the best-known sports figures who’ve been caught up in scandals over “performance-enhancing” drugs that have occurred over the years, Chris Bell—a former WWE employee and bodybuilder who admits to having used steroids in the past (but now uses “legal” supplements)—covers the whole issue in an extraordinarily thorough fashion.

But the treatment is remarkable not only for its breadth, but for its even-handedness as well. It gives ample time to those who describe steroids as a threat not only to the integrity of sport but to the lives of children, offering footage from congressional hearings and observations from figures like Representative Henry Waxman as well as comments by Donald Hooton, a distraught Texas father who blames steroids for his son’s suicide and leads a campaign to inform students about the dangers they pose. But it doesn’t simply accept that side of the argument: it includes data suggesting that the alarmist position is a simplistic exaggeration, and that like many drugs and supplements steroids can cause serious injury if used in substantial amounts over a long period, but can be employed for quite appropriate medicinal purposes and don’t necessarily have irreversible long-term effects.

This description might suggest, though, that while the picture is more balanced than you might imagine, it’s still a dry, full-length equivalent of an educational instruction film. Nothing could be further from the truth. Bell and his cohorts lay out the material with real visual flair, employing adroit editing that juxtaposes a raft of pop cultural and political references to Rambo, G.I. Joe and Luke Skywalker against the scientific data, and a good deal of humor, mostly supplied by ironic clips involving individuals whose public pronouncements don’t quite jibe with their past conduct (like Arnold Schwarzenegger) and interviews in which people don’t say quite what they think they’re saying.

On the other hand, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” is no joke. It’s often playful, but it’s poignant too, especially in the sections that deal with Bell’s own family. Christopher’s own recollections about how, as a kid in Poughkeepsie, his idolatrous attitude toward wrestlers (including a fanatical desire to become one) was shattered when he discovered the truth about them, are compelling. But his two brothers take important roles on the cautionary side: Mike, nicknamed “Mad Dog,” and Mark, affectionately called “Smelly,” are both long-term steroid users obsessed with improving their bodies in an obviously hopeless effort to realize their dreams of success in pro wrestling and weightlifting. The conversations Bell has with them, and their parents, around the family dinner table are revealing and touching, and add a personal element to the film that makes it all the more compelling.

And finally, the picture takes a broader view, putting the steroid controversy (and the story of the Bell brothers) within a larger cultural context. The ultimate question it raises involves the hypocrisy of condemning one form of performance enhancement while systematically ignoring others that are arguably more problematic, and of maintaining the fiction of integrity not only in sports but other areas of American life while simultaneously undermining the illusion by emphasizing the importance of winning whatever the cost. Is it right, the picture asks, to punish a few notables for cheating in sports when giving yourself an edge, in various forms, is so pervasive—and blithely accepted—a means of getting ahead nowadays across the spectrum of society?

But once again, though these are serious matters—and one that lifts the picture beyond the conventional diatribe against steroids—Bell and his confederates manage to put them across in a fashion that’s genuinely enlightening, and enjoyable as well as instructive. As a result it’s not just “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*”—it’s also better than most movies.