Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

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Magnolia Pictures
Chris Bell/United States 2008

The opening segments of Christopher Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster* inspire significant skepticism. A film by an admitted gym rat about his steroid ingesting gym rat brothers, it at first seems like a de facto apology for their actions. Taking a page out of Michael Moore’s playbook, the filmmaker visits all sorts of selectively chosen experts who decry the outlandish fear mongering in the mainstream media’s portrait of the dangers of steroid use. At the same time, he makes some of its strongest opponents like Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) – one of the lead voices on the issue in Congress – look completely foolish.

Fortunately in spite of the fun and games, Bell recognizes the larger issue at hand. He shifts focus from the steroid issue to the broader concern it signifies: the American public’s obsession with the “perfect” image in all of its forms. Rather than serving as an immature apologia for a subculture of musclemen and power lifting, the film interrogates the reasons those involved feel so propelled to change their bodies, very often at steep personal cost. To do so, the filmmaker takes the audience on a journey through everything from pop culture’s most familiar macho imagery to an exploration of his own family and the complex reasons his brothers have gone on the drugs.

Improbably, given the superficial opening, Bell reveals himself to be a perceptive social observer. His dissection of the body image culture and subsequent condemnation of the logic that equates one’s physical appearance with happiness and success gets to the heart of one of the most tragic offshoots of the extreme saturation of advertising imagery that permeates modern American life. In his combination of investigatory sequences, clearly stated facts, perceptive use of illustrative graphics and stark, emotional onscreen interviews, Bell co-opts the populist spirit so fundamental to Moore and Morgan Spurlock. He does so, however, without the partisan hankering of the former or the self-absorption that so often torpedoes each man’s seemingly honest intentions.

In Bigger, Stronger, Faster* Bell has made a movie at once macro and micro: informative on a global scale and resonant on a personal one. One need not buy into every last bit of what he’s selling to recognize how vividly he makes his case and how admirably he opens his own failings up to scrutiny. The film might not be perfect but it sure is important, serving as an apt, accessible case against the destructive ideas that fuel steroid culture, rather than the drugs themselves.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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