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— Casper Van Dien, Starship Troopers

MRQE Top Critic

Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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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

If steroids were outlawed, only outlaws would have steroids
If steroids were outlawed, only outlaws would have steroids

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.

Fallacy Land

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.)

  • Anonymous: Chris' brother did NOT die of suicide. You should check your facts before posting something like this. He actually died from inhaling household Dust-Off. Perhaps if you'd understood the meaning of the film you'd realize that this is an important distinction. The film wasn't trying to defend the use of steroids but trying to figure out why people use them. Whether or not steroids can kill you is beside the point, as is whether or not Dust-Off can kill you. More importantly we need to take a deeper look at our culture and figure out why so many people are so desperate to get ahead in America that they'd use a performance-enhancing drug, like steroids, beta-blockers, Adderall etc April 26, 2009 reply
    • Marty Mapes: I should have been more circumspect. I don't actually know whether Mike Bell died of suicide; I inferred it based on what I read from a Wikipedia article and its references and links. April 26, 2009 reply
      • Anonymous: Perhaps this should be a lesson that Wikipedia should not be used to "check facts." There's a reason why "real journalists" need to use three legitimate sources. Call the Coroner's Office like The Poughkeepsie Journal did. It's public information! Don't be so lazy. This is why there is so much misinformation flooding the world. Because bloggers like you don't check their facts. Yes, this is another point addressed in Bigger Stronger Faster....the spreading of misinformation. I can see why you didn't like it. April 28, 2009 reply
        • Marty Mapes: Anonymous, first, if you have a personal connection to Mike, then I am truly sorry for your loss. And if you have a connection to Chris, then I'm sorry I didn't love his movie as much as you would have liked me to.



          You scolded me for inferring a suicide. I acknowledge that it was my own inference based on the limited information available. The movie itself suggested that Mike had emotional and chemical issues, so my inference was not unreasonable. I was sorry to learn of his death while writing this review.



          However, you confuse MANNER of death and CAUSE of death when you say it can't be a suicide because it was poison inhalation. That only follows if inhaling a lethal dose of poison was accidental -- and maybe it was -- unfortunately the Poughkeepsie Journal story is no longer on-line so I don't know what you read. April 28, 2009 reply
          • Anonymous: HEADLINE: "Bell died of inhalation-induced heart attack"

            http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2009903260339

            HEADLINE: "Bell's Death Listed As Accident"
            http://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/article/20090319/SPORTS/903190335/-1/s



            May 3, 2009 reply
            • Marty Mapes: Thanks for setting the record straight, Anonymous May 3, 2009 reply
              • Jason65: I agree with anonymous. It's a little much to "infer" something as monumental as somebody killing them self and then post it in an article like this. This is how rumors start and misinformation is spread. You most likely jumped to this conclusion because it was a perfect ending for your article as it questioned everything Bell had stressed in his movie, and not only that but happened to his very own brother featured in the film which makes it even more ironic. If possible, you should update this article (I don't know if you can), and remove that statement.. as it has absolutely zero truth to back it up - and was officially reported as something completely different. October 6, 2013 reply