It’s been eight years since Chris Bell released his first feature-length film, but “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” remains the best look into the strength athlete’s temptations, challenges, and goals ever caught on film.
And while most documentaries lose their edge over time — often due to change or progress surrounding a controversial issue — Bell’s film has become arguably more potent because so little has changed. The legal framework and social taboos surrounding performance enhancing drugs have held (mostly) steadfast, and though Bell skewers both throughout the film’s 1 hour, 46 minute runtime, it’s tough to say anything has since changed in the public consciousness.
If you haven’t watched the film — or haven’t rewatched since its 2008 release — it’s well worth your time. (“Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” is available on Netflix and Amazon Video.) Bell takes viewers through his personal journey from wide-eyed child to self-doubting adult, and he doesn’t pull punches on himself when it comes to showcasing personal vulnerability.
The core story focuses on Chris and his family as they struggle to find meaning in what they love most. For Bell and brothers Mike (older) and Mark (younger), strength sports and America’s musclebound heroes are THE lens through which they observe and internalize American society. Fractures in that oiled and juiced-up facade don’t just dim their childlike admiration; each disgraced hero and celebrity scandal shakes their base perceptions of reality, and it doesn’t take much in the way of editing gimmicks to make the Bell trio (and their down-to-earth parents) sympathetic characters in the viewer’s eyes.
While the film ostensibly examines America’s relationship with performance enhancers, the Bells’ challenges are even more complex. They’re living, breathing, bench-pressing victims of the double-standard wherein we demand increasingly superhuman feats but chastise the methods that enable their existence. All three have done or are on steroids during filming. Their reasons for doing so are varied, personal, and — gasp — even logical at times. But while pro wrestlers, athletes, movie stars, and bodybuilders-turned-politicians fall from grace only to be quickly forgiven or reelected, it’s the small-town powerlifter on roids who ends up getting vilified.
“I know the governor of California loved the juice, but if the high school football coach does a cycle of winstrol, what on earth will the children think?!”
The narrative works overtime to present multiple voices and present facts — as opposed to assertions — insofar as they’re available. If anything, that attention to perspective makes the film feel a little crowded on top of itself.
But what makes “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” so timely now is how the story progressed since its 2008 release. Mark Bell built an empire on strength apparel, gear, and publishing. Chris Bell continues to make films and recently announced a new documentary about strongman competitors.
In late 2008, Mike “Mad Dog” Bell passed away in late 2008 from a heart attack following inhalant use. Mike’s struggles with prescription drug abuse were a focus on Chris’ followup documentary in 2015, titled “Prescription Thugs.”
The Bell brothers had three very different relationships with performance enhancing drugs. And all three sought different forms of success. Compared to the effort “Bigger, Stronger, Faster*” took to dispel blanket myths around PEDs, their lives illustrate how massively a one-size-fits-all opinion on doping will fail.