(2008) Documentary (Magnolia) Christopher Bell, Mark Bell, Mike Bell, Sheldon Bell, Rosemary Bell, Stan Lee, Lyle Alzado, Hulk Hogan, Joe Biden, Will Harris, Greg Valentino. Directed by Christopher Bell
America loves a winner, General George Patton tells us, and can’t abide a loser. This is a truth that is central in understanding the American character. We all know what the American dream is; but what is the American ideal?
Filmmaker Christopher Bell knows. As a boy growing up in Poughkeepsie, he and his brothers worshipped the same things that other boys growing up in the 1980s worshipped; Rambo, Hulk Hogan, the Terminator. He wanted to be just like them, as his brothers Mike and Mark also did. When it came out that their bodies weren’t developed naturally but had a little help from steroids, at first he was devastated. However, that understanding brought all three of the boys to the same conclusion; if that’s what it takes to get those kinds of bodies, then that’s what they had to do.
In fact it wasn’t the muscular bodies themselves that the Bell boys craved but what came with it; success and victory, victory in weightlifting competitions and professional wrestling matches. They wanted to be famous and admired. What they got instead was a lifetime of frustration. Professional wrestling is a tough business to achieve glory in and the Bell brothers made little headway. Brief careers in World Wrestling Entertainment did not yield the expected results.
The movie addresses calmly and rationally the entire steroid and performance enhancement issue. Steroids are illegal in this country without a prescription and the purpose of building muscle is not considered a valid reason for prescribing them medically. However, unlike other drugs with similar prohibitions, there are no narcotic elements to steroids. There’s no evidence that steroids are especially harmful (Lyle Alzado’s assertions that steroids caused his brain tumor to the contrary) and quite frankly, the whole concept of “Roid Rage” which allegedly fueled pro wrestler Chris Benoit’s homicidal rampage has no medical basis.
The real issue with steroids, Bell alleges, is far more insidious. It is the buying into the culture of competitive edge, that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. It drives athletes – where, the movie alleges, steroid us is commonplace from the professional level on down – to use whatever edge they can find to be successful.
Then-Senator Joe Biden called steroids “Un-American,” but as Greg Valentino, a steroid user asserts, “Steroids are as American as apple pie.” Self-proclaimed with the largest biceps in the world, Valentino is something of a freak. Although muscular, his biceps are so large that it is unattractive which Valentino cheerfully admits. For him, it’s not about attracting the ladies for Valentino; it’s about being the biggest. He certainly attracts male admirers who think the man is a legend. His interviews in the movie are some of the most entertaining; Valentino is a naturally charismatic guy.
The movie’s at its best when it concentrates on the effects of steroids on the families of the brothers. Their parents were unaware of the boys’ steroid use and the news of it was devastating to them. Mike’s wife is concerned with the use of the steroids; she wants another baby and steroids decrease fertility. Mike promises to stop using them when he lifts 700 pounds, an achievement he does eventually attain. However, whether or not he keeps that promise is very much up in the air.
Like documentarian Michael Moore, Bell tells his story very specifically, using a lot of facts – and a fair amount of humor – to illustrate his points. However, Moore’s pieces haven’t been personal since Roger and Me; this is Bell’s family story and it obviously is very important to him. That investment is what makes this documentary special. Whether or not the subject interests you, the glimpse into an American family – and seeing what the American ideal has done to it – is more than worthwhile.
WHY RENT THIS: A well-made, rational and sober examination on the use of steroids and its impact on a single American family.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Near the end the filmmakers try to tackle a little too much of a range; the movie is better when it focuses on the Bell family.
FAMILY VALUES: The movie is about the consumption of what are now illegal drugs in the United States, so you do the math. There is also some sexual content and a bit of everyday foul language as well as some scenes of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was compiled from over 400 hours of filmed interviews and 600 hours of archival footage.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
TOMORROW: Shoot ’em Up