Movie Review Tuesday: Steroids, Ivies and Comics

Time for another installment of movie reviews! All documentaries this week!

Bigger, Faster, Stronger: This is a documentary about the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes in America (well, North America, since Ben Johnson’s 1988 Olympics disqualification gets some play). The documentarian, Chris Bell, is a young man whose brothers — one older and one younger — are both on the juice, trying to build careers in pro wrestling and professional weightlifting. The narrator brings a folksy, light touch to the film, discussing the myriad hypocrisies in our legal policies toward PEDs, their demonization. I do think he bites off more than he can chew when he tries to make the point that the beautiful people in advertisements are a big factor in people’s decisions to use steroids and the like. That segment is also the one where he models for both the “before” and “after” sections of a fake nutritional supplement ad in one day, to show how misleading those ads can be. The saddest but best part of the film may be the segment where he interviews the father of “steroid suicide” Taylor Hooton, poster corpse for President Bush’s bizarre anti-steroid announcement at the 2004 State of the Union address. Despite his child’s other risk factors, including use of an anti-depressant known to cause suicidal ideation in teens, the father declares that he “knows” steroids killed his son, and doesn’t care what science or research has to say. The filmmaker treads the difficult line of showing the man’s willing ignorance without overtly humiliating him (or getting his ass beat). Overall, it’s a pretty entertaining documentary about a culture obsessed with getting over.

Harvard Beats Yale 29-29: And then there was a documentary about a 1968 game between a couple of Ivy League schools. I knew nothing about this game when I picked up the DVD, except that Tommy Lee Jones was on the Harvard team that year. The movie rounds up a ton of players from both sides, and a weird trend emerges as they’re introduced: while the Yale players fit the stereotype of WASP-ish legacies and other wealthy scions, many of the Harvard players come from hardscrabble, public school backgrounds. (Which made me think Harvard had lower admission standards for its team, but also made that team a bit more sympathetic than the blue-bloods of the Yale squad.) The filmmakers make virtually no direct intrusion into the film, instead alternating between interviews and footage from the game itself. There’s an attempt at framing the game in terms of tumult of its 1968 milieu, but the story of the game itself, Harvard’s incredible comeback, and the personalities of a few of the players — Harvard’s backup QB Frank Champi, Yale’s QB Brian Dowling (inspiration for Doonesbury’s B.D. character), and Yale’s lineback Mike Bouscaren — sweep the film along. Bouscaren, in particular, illustrates a certain type of self-delusion that must be seen to be believed. Most of the men, 40 years later, are capable of stepping back and saying, “It was just a football game, not life and death,” but you can tell how much resonance that November afternoon had in all their lives.

In Search of Steve Ditko: This is British chat-show host Jonathan Ross’ hour-long documentary about superhero cartoonist Steve Ditko, the man who (co-)created Spider-Man and Doctor Strange for Marvel Comics, then inexplicably quit the company. Ross, a lifetime comics fan, treats Ditko’s legacy with reverence and interviews many subjects about both Ditko’s work and his life, focusing on Spider-Man, but also taking a trip into Ditko’s bizarre Mr. A stories and his Ayn Rand/objectivist fixation. The twin culminations of the documentary are Ross’ interview with Stan Lee and his attempt to meet Ditko at the latter’s Times Square studio. I was touched by how reverent Ross was, and how so many of the interview subjects geeked out over the same passage we all did: Spider-Man’s struggle to get out from under a giant machine in issue #33. The biggest drawback of the show was the inane decision to render all text in Comic Sans. If you’re a comics fan, you really oughtta watch this documentary sometime.

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