The dope on steroids in 'Bigger, Stronger, Faster'

Al Alexander

Chris Bell’s "Bigger, Stronger, Faster'' jabs a needle in the butt of performance-enhancing drugs and winds up with a documentary on steroids.

It’ll pump up even the girliest filmgoers with its hilarious, sometimes deeply moving exposé on the most vilified and least understood pharmaceuticals ever injected into the national consciousness.

Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Andy Pettitte, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and about 80 percent of the NFL have – like it or not – become the bigger-than-life poster boys for what used to be called – rather ironically – sport’s dirtiest LITTLE secret.

Nothing, though, is little about steroids and their even less understood relatives, human growth hormone, or HGH. You’d swear the nation’s top media outlets were hopped up on them as well, given their almost daily hyperventilating over the "did he, or didn’t he'' questions surrounding athletes with chests bigger than their bellies.

What’s the truth, though? What are these miracles of modern doping and what, if any, are their long-term effects on not just the user, but also their sport and even more importantly their country and its people?

After all, it’s Bell’s contention that steroid use is just a byproduct of a nationalistic mentality that preaches America be bigger, strong and faster at everything from training Olympic athletes to waging high-tech warfare.

He should know: as a competitive weightlifter, he used to use them. Once, he says. But doesn’t every one say "once''? In this case, I tend to believe him, simply because he’s so open about everything else, including what he calls his "family of steroid users.''

His older brother, Mike "Mad Dog'' Bell, started shooting up when he was a freshman on the University of Cincinnati football team and continued using them when he worked as a jobber (aka, the patsy star opponents thrash each night) for World Wrestling Entertainment.

His, younger brother, Smelly, also a former WWE flunky, used them for years, too, and still uses them even though he hypocritically implores the young players on his high school football team to avoid them like the plague.

"Wait until you’re an adult,'' he says.

After so many years and so many injections, shouldn’t Mad Dog and Smelly be hirsute rage-aholics, as the media have led us to believe? They are not, and neither are the nearly dozen other users Chris Bell interviews on the subject.

The only clear side effect beyond the obvious muscle bulk is a lot of delusional notions that success, and better yet, stardom, awaits just around the corner, just like it did the Bells’ idols and fellow steroid users Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Hulk Hogan.

As anyone who came of age in the 1980s knows, that holy trinity of boast and brawn symbolized the fruits of hard work and adhering to the rules. Or they did before time exposed them as frauds.

But what they wrought troublingly continues with everyone from the reigning home run king to children like Taylor Hooton, a 17-year-old Texas pitching phenom who hanged himself, as his father Donald contends, because of steroid use.

Still, is this an issue worthy of congressional inquiry, especially when alcohol and cigarettes kill a gazillion more people each year? Bell dares to ask the question of the head of the committee that famously grilled Sosa, McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro in 2005, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. His answers – or should I say, non-answers – will have you laughing until you start to cry over how such an incompetent rose to power.

Most of the time, though, Bell works persuasively at debunking the myths and misrepresentations concerning both steroids and HGH, breaking them down in a way that’s both impartial and easy to comprehend.

Some of it is medicine, yes, but like Mary Poppins implored, it’s served with spoons full of sugar called humor. It’s as funny as you’d expect, too, coming as it does from the producers of Michael Moore’s "Bowling for Columbine'' and "Fahrenheit 911.''

Also like Moore (an obvious influence), Bell finds some of the most kooky and fascinating people to interview, including the man with the world’s largest (and ugliest) biceps, and a fiftysomething muscle head who lives in a van outside the world famous Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, Calif., still dreaming that one day he’ll be discovered.

It’s Bell’s two brothers who really get to you, though, their stories both sad and humorous, as you watch them foolishly chase after an ideal that was personified by their boyhood heroes: Hogan, Stallone and Schwarzenegger.

Bell equates learning the truth about his compromised idols to that of a kid learning there is no Santa or Easter Bunny. "It sucks,'' he says. I know the feeling; I used to worship Roger Clemens.

Yet, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster'' left me less eager to condemn the athletes than the society they were reared in, a society that preaches winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

Are we, as Bell asks, a nation on steroids? And do sports fans really care as long as their team wins? The answers may not be surprising, but Bell sure makes them seem so in a film guaranteed to build muscle, especially in that all important one between your ears.

The Patriot Ledger