There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Do you ever turn to a beta blocker to ease your stage fright? How about a double espresso to kick-start your brain after a bad night’s sleep? Then don’t go wagging your finger at bodybuilders and athletes who use performance-enhancing drugs, buddy, because you’re doping, too. That’s one of the more extreme arguments in Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, a documentary by weight lifter Christopher Bell that examines anabolic steroid use and the decidedly American but ultimately hypocritical culture that both nurtures and condemns it. (The asterisk refers to the film’s subtitle, The Side Effects of Being American.) Bell presents an entertaining but ultimately sneaky piece that’s partly memoir: Once a “fat, pale kid from Poughkeepsie,” Bell talks about how he and his two similarly doughy brothers got caught up in the crush-your-enemies! culture of the early ’80s, their TVs and movie screens bursting with the well-sculpted likes of Sylvester Stallone, Hulk Hogan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They all wanted to be ass-kickers, too, so they hit the gym—and soon found out that their role models got buff using steroids. Bell balked at what he considered cheating, though he admits to trying them and “feeling guilty.” His siblings had no such compunction: When the eldest, “Mad Dog” Mike, got to college and played football, in fact, “it was no decision at all,” he says, claiming that doping was necessary to compete. Christopher Bell, often conducting interviews in a backward ball cap, affects an innocent Kevin James expression as he listens to doctors, politicians, and users argue the safety and morality of steroids while sorta-sticking to his original anti-’roid stance. But by the end of the doc, you realize the debate—while informative and occasionally eye-opening—is largely one-sided. Besides the “everybody does it” mantra repeated by coaches and athletes, the biggest argument here is that steroids, like every other drug from alcohol to caffeine, are only dangerous when abused. An HIV-positive patient who “responded amazingly” to steroid treatment is interviewed. Even the high-profile and seemingly, at least to the parents, clear-cut case of Taylor Hooton, a teenager who killed himself in 2003 after using steroids, is looked at skeptically: Taylor was also on Lexapro, an antidepressant that also has the possible side effect of suicidal ideation. Bell expresses concern about his brothers and has heartbreaking talks with his parents about the self-esteem issues that led them all to try performance enhancers. But then he freezes a video of himself, Mom, and Dad cheering when little bro Mark lifts 700 pounds in a competition—suggesting that their just-say-no attitudes come with an asterisk as well.