Dir. Chris Bell
(PG-13) ★ ★ ★

The scariest thing revealed by the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster: Congress devoted more time to hearings about the Major League Baseball steroid scandal than on Hurricane Katrina. If it’s true that the American culture is preoccupied with winning, it’s equally preoccupied with talking about it. If a Mark McGwire home run had breached the levees, the US government might have made it to Louisiana before the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Directed by Chris Bell, the film uses Michael Moore-ian techniques to address steroid use in America — comic animation, snarky narration, and an oft confrontational interview style support or challenge various experts on the subject. His interest is personal: He and his two brothers are dedicated athletes who have all used anabolic steroids to improve performance. But his film isn’t a bleak confessional about drug abuse, as we might expect. Intelligently, he questions whether steroids are as bad as their hype.

The biggest problem with Bell’s approach is his ambivalence. The early portions of the film defend steroid use. It has benefits in treating illnesses such as AIDS. Its adverse health effects are exaggerated; acne, body hair, and fertility problems are verified side effects, but more dire consequences like heart disease, stroke, and “roid rage” are unsubstantiated and have been egregiously over-reported. And it is only one drug in a culture that medicates its way to success at every opportunity; he likens steroid users to musicians who use beta-blockers to combat anxiety during performances and auditions.

But later portions of the film emphasize cheating. The American dream is to win at all costs — no wonder steroid use is widespread. Bell makes a strong case for and against, and if he approached the topic objectively his film might be admirably nuanced. But he is too close to the material to be objective, and his film argues both sides without committing to a point of view. As a man who has struggled with the physical and moral implications of steroid use, Bell’s impulse is to be even-handed, but where does his film stand? Everywhere, and nowhere.

The film improves dramatically in the second half. Bell turns his attention from steroids specifically to American hypocrisy in general, and as his focus improves, so does the quality of his argument. He takes Arnold Schwarzenegger to task; the California governor denounces steroid abuse while turning a blind eye to steroid-users in body-building competitions he sponsors. He targets George W. Bush; he gave a speech about cheaters in sports sending the wrong message to American youth, but as the former owner of the Texas Rangers, he employed admitted steroid user Jose Canseco, who testified that the team leadership knew about the use of performance enhancing drugs by the players.

Most memorable is Bell’s indictment of the nutritional supplement industry. Rampant deregulation has allowed companies to bypass the FDA, and secrecy about “proprietary formulas” allows companies to skimp on ingredients while making top dollar for their product. In a shocking scene, Bell demonstrates a method of manufacturing his very own supplement that involves undocumented day laborers cutting active ingredients with large quantities of rice flour, like drug dealers. The manufacturing cost is $1.50. They can charge $60 for the finished product. This is entirely legal.

These supplements are promoted using fitness models on steroids. Before and after pictures are taken the same day and digitally manipulated. This is material worthy of its own film, and Bell handles it with the right mix of humor and outrage. He has learned well from Michael Moore.

Bell demonstrates convincingly that supplements are a racket and a fraud, worse than steroids because at least with steroids you’re likely to get what you paid for. That’s cheating too, but an entirely different kind. Steroids give you an unfair advantage. Supplements give you perhaps a slight advantage along with unknown dangers and saves its greatest benefits for the coffers of a corporation. If that’s the American way, then America needs a new way.