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Originally published Friday, June 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Bigger, Stronger, Faster": investigating the American obsession with being No. 1

If you're thinking that a lot of recent "before and after" weight-loss ads seem deceptive, you're not necessarily imagining things. According to Christopher Bell...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars

"Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American," a documentary directed by Christopher Bell. 106 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving drugs, language, some sexual content and violent images. Varsity.

For an interview with Christopher Bell, which ran Tuesday in NWLife, see www.seattletimes.com/movies.

If you're thinking that a lot of recent "before and after" weight-loss ads seem deceptive, you're not necessarily imagining things.

According to Christopher Bell, director of a wide-ranging new documentary, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American," some of the photographs are shot on the same day. Makeup, lighting and other camera tricks can make the subjects look as if they've gained or lost several pounds.

"I don't think all of the before-and-after pictures are bogus," said Bell, when he brought the movie to the Seattle International Film Festival last month. "But when I was talking to a photographer who shoots a lot of these things, he said some of these people get paid to get fat, and it's really easy to rebound and get back in shape.

"One girl was pregnant, and she had her picture taken right after she had the baby, when she was all flabby, and then six weeks later of course she's going to look great. Of course, she probably did use the [weight-loss] product, but it's still a manipulation of the truth."

The segment about before-and-after photos makes up a relatively small part of Bell's film, but he views such trickery as common enough that it's become an accepted part of the American obsession with being No. 1. Hence, the subtitle of the picture, which finds fault not only in the abuse of steroids but in the knee-jerk condemnation of all performance-enhancing drugs.

Like a lot of kids in their 20s, Bell grew up on pumped-up images of Sylvester Stallone's Rambo and Rocky and the action films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he was genuinely shocked to learn that not all of those biceps were achieved through powerlifting alone.

He began to question other forms of artificial enhancement, including eye surgery, amphetamines and beta blockers, and watched as several famous athletes were brought before congressional hearings. In the end, he may not have a lot of answers, but his movie does succeed as a provocation.

Unexpectedly funny, sometimes angry, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" can be a tad manipulative itself, especially when Bell goes after Schwarzenegger in a manner that's reminiscent of Michael Moore's single-minded manhunt in "Roger & Me." Not too surprisingly, Schwarzenegger turns out to be more than ready for him.

Bell claims he was the "class clown" in high school, before he became a filmmaker. He's still a natural at using humor to capture and keep your attention.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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