CHRIS BELL IDOLIZED Hulk Hogan, worked hard, said his prayers, gobbled his vitamins just as the Hulkster told him to do. Your basic wide-bodied, wide-eyed kid growing up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., with his older brother Mad Dog and his younger brother Smelly.
"I thought when Hulk Hogan beat the Iron Sheik in Madison Square Garden," Bell recalled the other day, "I thought muscles were the answer. I thought Hulk Hogan rescued the hostages from Iran, was responsible for a U.S. victory, a larger-than-life human being.
"Which is why I started the movie with Hogan against the Iron Sheik."
The movie is "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*," an earthy, tough, smart-asterisk documentary about steroids that drew rave notices at the Sundance Film Festival. It opens in Philadelphia on June 6.
Bell wrote, directed and narrated. His boyhood heroes, Hogan and Rocky and Arnold Schwarzenegger, he discovered, were trying to get bigger and stronger faster.
"My favorite football team growing up was the Pittsburgh Steelers," Bell said. "And then I found out those linemen used steroids. And Rocky Bleier, my all-time favorite player, he used steroids under a doctor's care to help him recover from nearly getting his foot blown off in Vietnam.
"Jose Canseco told Congress guys were constantly striving to get bigger, stronger, faster. But the movie is not just about steroids. Which is why the subtitle is 'The Side Effects of Being American.' We're living in a win-at-all-costs culture. And when athletes are caught using steroids, it's really no surprise."
It seemed like a surprise to some members of Congress when they waded into the steroids swamp not knowing how deep or how dangerous it was. Bell has this interview with U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, who co-chaired that committee, and Waxman comes across as an uninformed boob.
"He didn't even know what the minimum age for drinking was in America," Bell sneered. "Baseball should have investigated baseball. But when they didn't, Congress stepped in."
Squandered time and money that should have been used for looking at the war in Iraq or an economy swirling toward the toilet, so they justified the hearings as a health issue.
"Not to quote my own film," Bell said, "but John Romano, chief editor of Muscular Development magazine, asks, 'How can you say steroids are a national public health crisis when people are dropping dead at a rate you can measure by the minute from alcohol and tobacco?' "
Bell takes his camera into the Texas home of Donald Hooton. Hooton's son, Taylor, a high school pitcher, committed suicide after a failed attempt to get bigger, stronger, faster with anabolic steroids.
Bell asks coldly about the possible effects of the antidepressant medications Taylor was taking. "It's sad, but 5,000 kids in America commit suicide a year," he said glumly, "and only three have been attributed to steroids. There needs to be more research.
"And there has to be more communication between parents and kids. That was the first time I'd met Donald Hooton. He told me he lived in a competitive neighborhood. I have no idea what went on in that house, but if Taylor had said, 'I'm thinking about using steroids' and they had talked about it, maybe it would have turned out different."
So the movie is about steroids and rule-breaking and hypocrisy and parenting. It was tough to confront his own mother on camera, telling her flatly that her brother John was the source for the steroids Mad Dog took after getting a scholarship to play football at the University of Cincinnati.
"They were the worst team in college football at the time," Bell recalled. "He's there a week and he starts taking steroids. I think it exists more at Division III, those kids dreaming of playing for a Division I team. They can't, they're just not as gifted.
"The NFL troubles me. I see Jake Long, first pick in the draft, how big he is. That doesn't look natural to me. Ten years ago, there were five guys weighing over 300 pounds in the league. Now, what, there are 405? They didn't get that way eating Wheaties."
There are so many memorable moments in the film. Ben Johnson, the banned Olympic sprinter, justifying performance-enhancing drug use because "everybody does it." And Carl Lewis escaping a similar banished fate because his use of a banned substance was declared "inadvertent."
Poignant scenes involving his family, and yes, the kid brother is still called Smelly, a throwback to when he would scamper to the dinner table drenched in sweat. And just when your list of topics to research further gets to double digits, here comes Bell with a body-slam about gene-doping.
"Dr. Lee Sweeney, who's at the University of Pennsylvania," Bell said, "is working on gene-doping as a possible cure for muscular dystrophy. And he's already getting calls from high school coaches."
Only in America! *