With A-Rod in the doghouse (and also getting standing ovations), now might be the best time to watch Bigger Stronger Faster*, a documentary on recreational steroid use in the United States.
Then again, maybe not. First the film says steroids aren’t so bad. Then it says maybe steroid use is something you should be ashamed of. It never takes a firm stand on the issue, and rarely makes a good argument. It proves that an interesting and timely subject does not guarantee an interesting documentary.
Skeptic Merit Badge
Director Chris Bell grew up with his two brothers watching Hulk Hogan wrestle, and eventually they all became bodybuilders. Chris’s two brothers use steroids, but he doesn’t. His curiosity leads him to make this documentary. Are steroids harmful? Can they cause dangerous mood swings? Are they “cheating”?
Bigger Stronger Faster*makes a convincing case that steroids are less harmful than people think. Stroke and heart attack are the chief concerns among media darlings who speak against steroids. Bell finds that these assertions are unfounded and that the talking heads are more enamored of media than research. So far so good.
Bell finishes earning his Skeptic Merit Badge later in the film. He whips up his own mega supplement, demonstrating just how easy it is to concoct snake oil and sell it to insecure kids like his younger self.
But Bell also splatters the screen with people making all sorts of logical fallacies to convince the audience (or themselves) that steroids are harmless: They’re not as bad as cocaine, alcohol, or marijuana; Vitamin C is more dangerous; Peanuts kill more people than steroids. None of these assertions address the issue of whether steroids are safe. George W. Bush was not as evil as Hitler, but that doesn’t mean he’s a saint.
The poor logic makes the subjects — and the film — sound defensive rather than informative. I wished the film had a stronger presence from the anti-steroid crowd so that I didn’t feel like I was being propagandized.
And yet later in the film, Bell himself seems to reach the conclusion that steroids aren’t completely harmless, and there is — and should be — some shame and embarrassment associated with their use. But again, Bell doesn’t really provide any evidence or logic to back up this feeling. There’s just a sense that maybe normal decent people shouldn’t use steroids.
All The Other Kids Are Doing It
Toward the end, Bell tackles the question of whether steroids are “cheating.” What Bell doesn’t say is that if you are Alex Rodriguez and you have a contract with Major League Baseball, it’s pretty likely that steroids are “cheating.” What Bell does say — and rightly so — is that when you’re a private citizen like the man with the world’s biggest biceps, a freakish looking but nice guy interviewed while eating rare meat, it’s harder to say you’re “cheating.”
The movie then embraces the bandwagon fallacy by talking to musicians who take beta blockers, fighter pilots who take amphetamines, and students who take Adderall. Speaking of which, by the time Bell’s 90 minutes are up, I had to wonder whether some of that stuff might have helped Bell and editor Brian Singbiel. They took us through the tortuous pathways of Bell’s thoughts on the subject and left us no smarter — no more shaken or convinced in our positions — than when we went in. Steroid use is a hot topic, but that doesn’t make Bigger Stronger Faster*a hot doc.
Sad footnote: one of Chris’ brothers featured in the film died after the film was released. He used steroids, and he died of suicide, but we’ll probably never know whether those two facts are related. To assume that they are would be another logical fallacy. (See comments — Ed.)