Bigger, Stronger, Faster*

I've seen a lot of documentaries lately – mostly through Netflix – and many have the same problem in that they pick an intriguing subject, but rarely get deep with it. So you get a portrait of something or someone, but you aren't shown the larger context surrounding the subject. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* is that rare documentary that actually succeeds at depicting the big picture.

Ostensibly an exposé on steroid abuse, the film plumbs much deeper, eventually inferring that steroid use is merely a symptom of life in today's vain, hyper-competitive America, where people will go to any lengths to succeed.

Director Bell pulls a Michael Moore by inserting himself in the narrative, making the film his own journey, but he gets away with it. A lifelong bodybuilder himself, Bell said no to steroids after brief experimentations when he was younger. His ambitious bodybuilding brothers, however, continue to pump themselves full of the drug as they pursue their own increasingly unrealistic dreams of fame and fortune.

Bell's personal connection to steroids brings an honesty and an immediacy to his film. But as with Bowling for Columbine (and not many other Michael Moore docs), what resonates most about Bigger, Stronger, Faster* is not what it says about steroids – one of the film's many surprises is that Bell goes rather easy on the drug – but what it says about our society. More startling than the film's insights into steroid abuse is its tangential discussions of the mostly unregulated "nutritional supplement" industry, weight loss schemes, fudging of drug scores for US athletes at the 1988 Olympics, and other scams.

This is a funny, engaging, and absolutely relevant documentary. It's the best new movie I've seen so far in 2008. And I'm not just saying that because my good friend Andy Zare, who was the production coordinator on my first film Foreign Correspondents, served in the same capacity – and was also the archival footage producer – on this film.