Review: A brawn derby of a doc

“Bigger, Stronger, Faster” is a stuffed but satisfying documentary about steroid use among athletes and bodybuilders and how this issue reflects the national obsession with size and might.

At the film’s center is a thoughtful portrait of a family exemplifying these themes. Elsewhere, expect an entertaining and idea-rich tour of the insane regions of the American brain’s body-image lobes.

Deemed “un-American” by a senator and “as American as apple pie” by a satisfied customer, anabolic steroids (synthetic testosterone) receive physiological and moral scrutiny by director and co-writer Christopher Bell in this documentary feature debut.

Three brothers — himself, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell and Mark “Smelly” Bell — constitute the film’s structural, and human, core.

Coming of age in the Reagan and Rambo years, the brothers idolized Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and transformed from pudgy weaklings into bulked-up strongmen. Learning that their heroes took steroids to achieve their physiques distressed Christopher, who doesn’t use steroids but understands why his brothers do. Mad Dog, a wrestler, and Smelly, a powerlifter, seek glory; they regard steroids as essential to their ability to excel.

Bell, who, as first-person documentarians go, suggests a less self-satisfied Morgan Spurlock with a Michael Moore-style fondness for do-it-yourself antics, covers lots.

We get pop-culture superheroes, anti-steroid congressional crusades, steroid-using sports stars, a “Reefer Madness”-type anti-steroid film and a man with the world’s biggest biceps.

Bell also questions why some enhancers — such as beta blockers used by musicians — aren’t demonized the way steroids are.

A particularly notable segment in this complex and evenhanded film features medical experts who can’t provide substantial evidence that steroids cause serious, permanent physical damage.

Meanwhile, Bell keeps returning to the brothers and their dilemma: Should you cheat in order to succeed in a country that rewards muscle over character? Or should you attain goals by honest means and be a loser?

A neophyte, Bell overloads you with details. Sometimes, your information processors overheat.

But this is certainly a worthy doc that shows, with fun and dimension, how brawn-fixated and cosmetically minded we are. It also provides one of the most interesting family visits we’ve experienced in a documentary since “Tarnation” and “Capturing the Friedmans.”

Big and small pictures combine in a terrific moment in which Smelly lifts 705 pounds and, looking on, his parents beam — never mind that steroids, of which they disapprove, have enabled his triumph. There’s real beef in this film.

CREDITS

Bigger, Stronger, Faster (3 stars)

Starring Christopher Bell, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell, Mark “Smelly” Bell

Written by Christopher Bell, Alex Buono, Tamsin Rawady

Directed by Christopher Bell

Running time 1 hour 46 minutes

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