Steroids in shades of gray*
You’d expect a documentary about anabolic steroids circa 2008 to be heavy on the dark side of the substance — the horrific side effects when abused, how it’s infiltrating youth athletics, the way it’s ruined elite and professional sports competition, etc.
Don't be so quick to judge "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," a new movie debuting Friday in New York and Los Angeles (the film opens wide in June and July). Director Christopher Bell has colored the movie in a palette of grays, even presenting a credible argument that maybe steroids aren’t the devil-spawn drugs some believe them to be.
"I had two brothers on steroids during the making of the film," says Bell, a USC film school grad from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who did a stint working at Gold’s Gym in Venice and directed the short film "Billy Jones." Bell, who does a Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock turn and appears in the film, originally considered documenting gym culture, but his brothers were willing to talk about their own steroid use to present another side of the story. "Also," says Bell, "at the time Congress was saying it was a black and white issue, and going through my life as a power lifter and being around steroids, I knew there was a gray area, and I wanted to present it in a different way."
He has, interviewing athletes, fitness models, doctors and sports fans about their attitude toward steroids. The film presents a mixed bag of facts, emotions and misinformation that will likely have even hard-liners reconsidering their views. For example, Bell points out that different forms of steroids are legally and routinely used in healthcare, and that " 'roid rage" isn’t a well-documented medical phenomenon. And although steroids, supplements and human growth hormone have horribly tainted elite and professional sports (as financial stakes stretch higher and higher), Bell makes the case that Americans like their sports heroes big and strong, and expects them to be winners. So aren’t we complicit in this as well?"
"As an athlete," says Bell, "you invest so much time and energy into pursuing your dream, and then all of a sudden you come to a crossroads — do you throw away all that time and effort, or be the person who wins at all costs? I found people on both sides of the coin. ... We always say that cheaters never prosper, but the people who are doing (steroids) are the people who are winning. It’s hard to tell people not to do it when they’re victorious. But if we want them to stop, are we doing anything to stop it?
At the heart of the film is the toll steroid use takes on Bell’s own family. In the film, Bell’s older brother Mike (nicknamed "Mad Dog") wants a shot at World Wrestling Entertainment fame, while the younger, Mark (nicknamed "Smelly") coaches high school and competes in power lifting. Their use of the substance is a source of consternation among family members, but we see the parents cheering wildly at competitions. It’s a scenario that’s undoubtedly being played out in various forms in many families.
Bell, by the way, hasn’t budged on his stance on ’roids: "I always thought it was cheating and against the rules and that people shouldn’t do it," he says. "If people learned more about nutrition and training, they’d be way better off."
Photo of Mike, Chris and Mark Bell courtesy of Magnolia Films