Chris Bell is a weightlifter and a former employee of World Wrestling Entertainment. And now he’s a filmmaker, the co-writer, director and on-screen narrator of “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*,” a documentary about steroid use and what it says about American life. The picture also has a strong personal component, touching not only on Bell’s own use of “performance enhancers” but the effect of steroids on his two brothers, whose obsession with succeeding in weightlifting and pro wrestling has kept them using.
It sounds as though the film will be a dry as dust cautionary tale about the dangers of drugs. But it proves an unexpectedly complex treatment of the subject, and—thanks to lots of archival material, pop culture references and interviews with sports figures caught up in steroid scandals (like Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis)—an engaging one. And it considers the issue from a much broader social perspective.
Bell visited Dallas along with producers Alexander Buono and Tamsin Rawady for a screening of the picture at the 2008 AFI Festival, and talked about how the project started.
“The beginning idea was, what are steroids as a concept?” he explained. “If I could give you something to make you better, would you take it? If I offered you this potion of excellence, would you do it? But you’re like, what are the consequences, the downside? You don’t really know. And then it broke out into the family thing, because we realized that that’s what will get people intrigued.
“I’m not a doctor, and I’m not the one to analyze it. But I like to examine the bigger picture of what’s going on in America—the pressures that kids are put under. You’re expecting kids to be better than perfect and not take Adecal or not cheat on tests—not to do these things. How can you expect this level of excellence from our kids and yet expect them to have a normal, balanced life? It’s all so competitive and so crazy.”
So the filmmakers decided that only a wide-ranging, even-handed approach could work. Bell said, “The attitude was, hey, let’s not distort the truth here. Let’s just tell the truth as it is. Let’s just talk about things as they are. The question our film raises is, let’s look at the bigger picture, why people are doing this. Why do people want to be bigger, stronger, faster?”
The movie thus recalls the history of drug use in sports. “Starting in the late fifties,” Bell said, “Olympic athletes from America and other countries have been using performance-enhancing drugs.” Some of them got caught, had their medals revoked and became pariahs. Others got away with it. More recently, baseball players like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire had come under scrutiny. (Bell noted that among the eight hundred archive clips included in the picture is one showing McGwire hitting a home run and Fox sportscaster Joe Buck saying, “if you were going to construct a home run hitter in a lab—put him together—he’d look like that.”)
“If there’s rules in a sport and you break the rules, then you’re cheating,” Bell added. “But what our film kind of examines is, is it still cheating if everybody’s doing it? That’s where the problem lies. When winners get caught, that’s when it becomes an issue. We hold congressional hearings on baseball players because I think that for some reason we have the feeling that sports are the last oasis of purity in America, the last area of sanctity where you can say, at least that’s clean. I don’t think people want to let that go. The whole film explores these hypocrisies in America. When Joseph Biden says there’s something simply un-American about [steroid use by pro athletes], I think we all question whether its un-American to use steroids. Or is there nothing more American than doing whatever it takes to win in the culture that we’re brought up in, the belief you have to win, you have to be the best? And if you’re not the best, you’re a loser?”
Rawady added, “What we’re trying to say in the film is that everybody’s kind of responsible—it’s not just the athletes that we put all the blame on.” And as for the quickness of politicians to latch onto the steroid issue, Buono noted, “I think that to some degree they can get a lot of good face time with that issue. I’m not going to say that they don’t have good intentions. And if they really believe that there’s a drug that’s causing children to commit suicide or people to die, it’s their job to ask questions about it. But it occurred to us that the questions they were asking were not the right questions to ask.”
The right questions, Bell added, include not only the large issue of why people would feel pressure to use performance enhancers, but the actual effects of the steroids themselves. While the picture gives ample time to those who identify them as very dangerous, even fatal substances, it offers alternate opinions. “Actually the studies that have been done—three really good studies—show that administered to adult males, steroids are relatively safe, and their side effects are temporary and reversible,” Bell explained. “It’s not as bad as I had thought, and that was very eye-opening to me when I made the film. When you start looking into the studies and finding out more and more information, you say, maybe I’ve been lied to, maybe I haven’t been told the whole truth. And why haven’t I been told the whole truth?”
But “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” doesn’t claim to have all the answers to such questions. “There is so much happening about this drug that it’s really changing,” Bell said. “We definitely wanted to open up debate with this film, because we don’t know the answers—I was trying to ask the questions. In the end I couldn’t tell you whether steroids are good or bad. I could argue with myself all day on that.
“The film also explores the issue of fallen heroes and people that we think are so wholesome and great. Maybe everything’s not all as it seems. And then again, are these people that bad for doing this, or are they still heroes? It opens up all these questions.
“I think that it’s such a powerful subject that it can get teenagers and people that don’t normally see documentary films into theatres.”