Monday 1 December 2008

Bigger Stronger Faster* (2008) - ickleReview (HD)

This is an insightful documentary directed by Chris Bell who tells the story of his and his brothers' experiences of body building and anabolic steroids. As kids, Chris, Mad Dog, and Stinky, grew up wrestling each other for fun in their basement, inspired by the all-American hero and wrestler, Hulk Hogan, who peddled the American Dream by telling his fans to eat their vitamins and say their prayers. The brothers were also fans of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Silvester Stallone. But it turns out all three of these supposed role models used anabolic steroids, so the image they promote (like most of those connected with the American Dream) is not quite as it appears on the surface.

The Bell brothers were slightly fat kids and not exactly the most gifted at sports. But they trained hard at the weights and found they could achieve quite a lot with dedication and hard work. They became accomplished weight-lifters and one of them went on to play American football at college. However, he found training there too tough and turned to steroids for help. The other wanted to become a professional wrestler, so he, too, took steroids. Chris, the middle brother, followed his dream to work out in the same Gold's Gym that Arnie and Hulk Hogan had used in Venice Beach, California. Their success stories created the myth that if you could build a perfect body, the opportunities could come your way. There is a sad interview with a 50-year-old who is still working out, hoping his day will come.

Chris is more troubled by the moral quandary of taking steroids. He wonders if it is ethical, if it is cheating. The film explores the arguments in detail. Although it doesn't come down clearly in favour of either side, it suggests that steroids are perhaps a symptom of deeper problems within American culture: the belief that "bigger" and "better" are synonymous, the damaging obsession with body image, the hyper-competitive culture in sports that spreads into other parts of life, including politics and military power.

This is both an indictment of those who choose to take steroids, but also an empathetic portrait of them, revealing some of the reasons why some athletes abuse this substance. This comes highly recommended for sports fans; but it will also appeal to a wider audience interested in American culture.

Nugget: a personal documentary in the style of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. Good stuff. The asterisk in the title points to the tagline or subtitle: "The side effects of being American."

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