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Cover Story: As American As Apple Pie

New documentary film investigates the often hypocritical issue of steroids to get bigger, stronger and faster

By Jason Gargano · July 16th, 2008 · Cover Story
  America on Steriods
Jason Kidwell

America on Steriods

Americans are obsessed with being the biggest and the best. From business to war to sports, we have a long-running compulsion with winning.

It should then come as no surprise that American athletes are compelled to do everything in their power to get an edge, including using performance-enhancing drugs.

Well, not quite. During a 2004 congressional hearing on steroids, Sen. Joe Biden said the use of performance-enhancing drugs by our athletes is "simply un-American."

Many people seem to agree with Biden. The demonization of steroids and its users has increased rapidly in recent years -- from the merciless attacks on Barry Bonds to the purging of Tour de France competitors to the endless questioning of athletes in every sport. Expect to hear even more on the topic over the next month as the Summer Olympics loom in China.

Yet for all of our self-righteous anger, little official research has been done on the topic of performance-enhancing drugs. Chris Bell's Bigger, Stronger, Faster looks to kick-start a much-needed conversation on an issue rife with hypocrisy and ignorance.

His new documentary is a funny, wildly entertaining, often fascinating investigation of steroids that delves into the issue on both a personal and larger-scale level.

Contrary to Biden's claim, one of the film's many muscle-bound interviewees says that steroids are "as American as apple pie." Bigger Stronger, Faster tries to find out which of these polar-opposite statements is closer to the truth.

"Sports are the last bastion of hope for America as a clean, pure society," the 35-year-old Bell says by cell phone from California. "Everything else has gone down the tubes. And it becomes a really difficult thing when you have performance-enhancing drugs in sports. What do you tell the kids? It's a weird, sticky, messy area."

'Be a real American!'
The son of caring, religious parents, Bell grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., during the 1980s, an era in which he was infatuated with pop culture's triumvirate of pumped-up masculinity: Hulk Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

Bell and his two brothers were deeply smitten with these men of muscle. As young Hulkamaniacs, they lived by Hogan's popular creed: "Train, say your prayers, eat your vitamins, be true to yourself and be true to your country. Be a real American!"

That was then. As the '80s turned to the '90s, all three larger-than-life figures admitted they were on the juice during their heydey, a period in which our national obsession with body image began to surface as a major issue. Bell saw his heroes' admissions as betrayal -- they were "cheaters," he says -- but that didn't stop older brother Mike and younger brother Mark from taking steroids in an effort to compete in their respective athletic endeavors.

Mike Bell struggled with weight throughout his childhood. He combated his body-image issues by immersing himself in sports, becoming captain of his high school football team and, curiously enough, landing a scholarship at the University of Cincinnati in the late 1980s.

When his football career was cut short due to injuries, Mike pursued another dream. He started wrestling for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) but couldn't rise above the role of "jobber," aka the dude who gets his ass kicked by stars like The Undertaker.

Frustrated by his inability to rise in the WWE ranks, Mike's drug and alcohol problems spiraled out of control. He eventually tried to commit suicide. Now newly married at 36, he still dreams of WWE stardom, and he's still taking steroids.

Mark Bell followed in his eldest brother's footsteps, using steroids and becoming a WWE wrestler. But he had a wife and young kid at home. Unwilling to trade time with his family for life on the road, he moved to Northern California, opened a gym and immersed himself in weightlifting competitions.

Against his wife's wishes, Mark continued to take steroids and went on to become one of the country's best powerlifters.

Like his brothers, Chris Bell was a gifted athlete, breaking the New York state bench-press record as a high school senior. Unlike them, he had issues with using steroids.

"I tried them once but felt so guilty I had to stop," Bell says early in Bigger, Stronger, Faster. "Why do I find steroids immoral, yet both of my brothers made the other choice?"

Mark indirectly addresses the question later in the film: "If someone has issues with using performance-enhancing drugs, maybe they're just not cut out to be a champion."

Bell uses his family's personal struggles as a springboard to investigate the issue on a larger scale. He interviews everyone from alarmingly clueless California Rep. Henry Waxman to disgraced Olympic athlete Ben Johnson to various physicians and steroid experts in an effort to discern exactly how the drug affects its users and how (or if) its use should be policed.

Clad in his uniform of backward baseball cap and baggy shorts, Bell is a disarming, well-informed, surprisingly diligent first-person interviewer -- think the polar-opposite of the condescending Michael Moore approach -- asking pertinent questions about an issue that remains anything but clear despite years of press coverage. He investigates the topic from the inside out, which is a distinct advantage when dealing with the insular world of big-time athletics.

"The film is more about the concept of steroids being very American, the win-at-all-costs attitude," Bell says. "I'm not making this for the 5,000 members of Gold's Gym in Venice. I'm making it for everybody outside the world that I live in. The only way to do that is to kind of break it out a little bit."

Bigger, Stronger, Faster raises many intriguing questions -- from ethics in sports to health-related issues -- and is armed with a host of incisive pop culture references, including a hilarious clip of an over-the-top Ben Affleck possessed by 'roid rage in an after-school TV special from the early '90s.

Bell's provocative, surprisingly even-handed documentary debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and has been fanning out across the country since its theatrical release in early June, leaving a trail of fawning critics, fascinated audiences and altered perspectives in its wake.

"Team owners, Olympic committees ... there's a lot of people telling these athletes, 'Whatever you do, just don't tell the truth,' and that's such a bad message to send," Bell told a sold-out Sundance crowd at a post-screening Q&A.

After three years of interviewing, editing and tracking down the film's 800 archival clips, Bell was clearly relieved to finally have Bigger, Stronger, Faster in front of an audience. He thanked various behind-the-scenes technicians and producers, including Jim Czarnecki, producer of Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling for Columbine. And while his brothers couldn't make the Sundance screening, his parents were in attendance.

When asked how the making of the film impacted his family -- the brothers kept their steroid use a secret from their parents -- Bell turned the question over to his father.

"When Chris came up with the idea to take the movie in a more personal direction, we said 'definitely,' " Bell's father said. "Every family is affected by drugs, alcohol, cocaine, whatever, and we felt that America needs to know that these kinds of things exist in every family and that families need to pull together and talk. It's not just a steroid issue."

Loving larger-than-life heroes
Like legions of other impressionable young males in Ronald Reagan's feel-good, new-day-in-America '80s, Chris Bell was infatuated with the testosterone-addled, flag-waving movies of Schwarzenegger and Stallone.

"Rocky has always been my favorite movie of all time," Bell says. "I was always kind of intrigued by these larger-than-life heroes."

Being the shortest of three highly competitive brothers has a way of doing that.

"Stories about underdogs always captured my imagination," he says. "From the time I was a really little kid I used to watch the Batman show religiously. There was something about being the hero. I always wanted to do that. But I was never really that tall, and my brothers were both bigger than I was. I guess I felt my best shot at getting to any of that was being a director and kind of making it happen rather than being the guy in front of the camera."

But Hollywood is a long way off for a self-described "fat, pale kid from Poughkeepsie."

"I graduated from high school, and out of a class of about 500 kids I was 468 on the list," he says. "I had like a 68 percent average because I didn't apply myself. My dad basically gave me a choice. He said, 'You either go to community college or you go out and get a job.' And I was petrified to go out in the real world, so I went to community college."

Bell's first foray into filmmaking was a music video he made for a communications course. Impressed, his instructor sent the video to a national contest sponsored by Sony and the American Film Institute. To his astonishment, Bell won the contest.

"They flew me to California to give me the award and had this big ceremony," he says. "That's when they told me that Francis Ford Coppola was one of the judges for the contest. And I was like, 'Oh my God, this is really cool.' I mean, what better a thing could you get to boost you into the next level?"

Armed with a national award and recommendation from Coppola, Bell was accepted into the well-regarded USC film school.

"I wanted to make the next Predator," he says, laughing at the thought.

But it wasn't long before he starting investigating deeper subject matter. He won multiple awards for a short film about how tobacco companies advertise cigarettes to kids.

"I went from being the dumb-jock filmmaker to being the well-rounded, socially conscious filmmaker trying to make movies that have a broad appeal yet teach you something and make you think a little bit," he says.

With a pair of award-winning shorts on his resume, Bell was ready to tackle his first full-length feature project. That was 1994.

"I went on a bunch of meetings," he says, "but every time I signed on to do a film something would fall through the cracks."

Bell sees the long winding road to Bigger, Stronger, Faster as a blessing -- there's no way his younger self could have tackled such a culturally and personally complex film. More importantly, he hopes his documentary opens a long-overdue dialogue on steroids.

"America has this kind of secret love affair with steroids," he says. "We say, 'This guy's a winner. I'm going to put him on a pedestal. This is what you need to look like. This is what your performance needs to be at.' Yet when we find out that these people did steroids we look at them as cheaters and failures and losers. We're the country of 'Build them up and knock them down.' "

BIGGER, STRONGER, FASTER opens Friday at the Esquire Theatre.



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