Bigger Stronger Faster*
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Bigger Stronger Faster*

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In 1961 Yankee baseball greats Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle went after one of the most coveted records in the sport; most home runs for a season. On October 1, 1961, Maris broke the old record held by Babe Ruth with his 61st homer. Many sports fans and officials of the game felt that the record set by the Babe long ago still stood. The reason is due to expansion teams the number of games in a season increased from 154 games to 162. Because Maris had an additional eight games to achieve his 61 home runs it was determined that he would get in the record book but with an asterisk noting the difference. What brings this to mind is a new documentary called ‘Bigger Stronger Faster*’ about the current increase in the use of steroids in sports. In 1999 a similar race for most homers in a season was taken on by Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Both men had sailed passed the old record of 61 slamming one home run after another. Questions were raised that Sosa and McGwire both apparently had amazing growth spurts increasing muscle mass and strength in less than a year. It was generally believed that both men used performance-enhancing steroids to gain that edge. It is ironic that once fans raged over a difference of eight games in a season but it was mostly acceptable that a hormone could be injected without the same level of controversy. This film takes a hard look at the use of these drugs and how they affect the careers, health and lives of the athletes who use them. This documentary covers the debates that have started up over the widespread use of steroids and related substances. It also considers how the use of these drugs has changed the pursuit of the American dream. Overall it is a well-constructed look at this controversial topic that will inform and entertain. The DVD of the film is released by Magnolia Entertainment and is well worth getting.

This film represents a lot more than just a cinematic work for director Chris Bell. He and both of his brothers have used steroids. One brother, Mike (Mad Dog) Bell, was a professional wrestler who typically played the bad guy. The other brother, Mark (Smelly) Bell is a weight lifter chasing the dream of lifting 700 pounds. Currently only Chris has stopped using steroids. This gives Bell a unique perspective for a movie like this. While this may not seem to be consistent with the idea of impartial journalism this is the type of subject that needs a human viewpoint. Most of us just know about steroids from watching famous sports figures testifying before congress. These are men who are lionized by the public. Bell places a personal and human face on the men and women, who risk the dangers of steroid use to increase their abilities. The whole controversy came up again with the 2008 Olympics in China. There were some reports of steroid use at the games. My friend and I debated this topic at the time. He felt that it was just another training method not so different from the high tech equipment used. Let’s face it. You can wear the special Speedo that Michael Phelps used in his amazing victories but unless you have is physical abilities you will not win. Steroids alter the basic playing field of a sport giving an unnatural advantage to the user. This documentary is amazing in how it shows both sides of the issue. Yes, the use of these substances is cheating but the public has at least some of the blame. Fans demand more and more from their athletes and the only way to keep up with demand is to undergo this drastic and dangerous treatment.

The documentary goes back to January 23, 1984. Regan was the President, and there was trouble brewing in the Middle East. Bell and his brothers loved watching professional wrestling on TV amazed at the size and power of men like the Iron Sheik, Hulk Hogan and all the rest. They were all chubby boys but decided to bulk up and start lifting weights to improve their bodies and self-image. This film shows many similarities between taking steroids and the need to be thinner that is manifested in many young women. Both have to do with tying body image to self-esteem. Previous to this film Bell directed one other film about a 12-year boy who was addicted to smoking and a TV series about the World Wrestling Federation. For Bell and his brothers watching wrestling on TV was more than just entertainment they bought into the proposed struggle between good and evil and wanted to be like their heroes. This viewpoint of bulked up Americans saving the world was reinforced everywhere they looked. In the movies they watched as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone fought against unbelievable odds, always winning in the end. They completely bought into the belief that bigger was better and set out to achieve this no matter what.

What follows is a look at steroid use from both sides. The testimony of juicers is given and often comes across that they are trying to convince themselves as much as the people holding the hearings. There is also a look at the side effects that have been attributed to steroid use, including suicidal depression. This is shown in the emotional interview with a man who lost his son, a user, in this way. Comparisons are made to other ways that spots figures try to improve their game. Tiger Woods had eye surgery; competitors pump extra oxygen into their bodies with hyperbaric chambers. The documentary goes back to the fifties when Soviet athletes were given injections before weight lifting events. Many feel that this is a current problem but this film demonstrates just how long these chemicals and others like them have been in use. While other subjects are examined and interviewed the most emotional moments are between Chris Bell and his brothers. Both of them are still using. This has caused a rift between Mark and his wife who wants him to stop using. This film shows that there are many factors at work to compel the use of biochemical enhancements. Body image and self-esteem are only a part of it. As mentioned the public demands sports to be more extreme than ever and the athletes are just giving them what they want. Bell does his best to provide a balanced look at the practice interviewing scientist, pharmaceutical executives and athletes. While he has an inside track on the use of these agents he does attempt to distance himself to give the audience a clearer look at the practice. We are entering a brave new world in sports and other forms of physical competition. On the horizon are things like gene therapy and bionic improvements that will change the landscape of most physical endeavors. This is something that will not be going away soon and if you want a personalized but fair look at it this is the film to watch.

Magnolia Pictures has been a source of independent films for a while now. This is one of the better ones they have to offer and that is saying a lot. If you are a fan or an athlete this is something that you should watch and discuss.

Posted 09/11/08

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