Sports are stained by steroids. Every year brings stories of the anabolic cold warriors on tracks, diamonds, and probation and every year there is the pageantry of feigned shock. Not so in bodybuilding, where the fundamental assumption has long been that competitors are all doping. For better or worse, no one seems to be particularly scandalized by the muscle men's bulging bodies; this sport no longer swims in the mainstream and isn't populated by children's heroes. Arnold Schwarzenegger was famous even before the movies, politics, and scandal, but who wants to talk about today's glistening, erect-nippled behemoths? Vlad Yudin, whose documentary 'Generation Iron' (released September 20 in AMC Theaters nationwide) seeks to reposition bodybuilding as an elite sport like any other.
"It's about developing symmetry," Yudin says of Mr. Olympia, the competition that is bodybuilding's nearest equivalent to the Super Bowl. To the untrained eye, competitors may look grotesquely striated or bulbous, but the goal of the sport is not to be as humungous as possible. Perfection is a matter of proportionality. And the several men Yudin follows in the lead-up to the 2012 Mr. Olympia competition engage in a hell-bent race toward this ideal, ultimately revealing the fundamental masochism of their lifestyle.
Mickey Rourke narrates the film, adding a meta-layer to Yudin's highly stylized work, which is filled with original music, slow-motion montages, and dramatically orated background stories. Rourke, who returned to prominence after his meaty performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson in 'The Wrestler,' has been chased by tales of steroids and plastic surgery for years, so it seems heartfelt when he gruffly intones: "For all bodybuilders, the experience is similar. They are an oddity. Stares, pointed fingers – they're in a freak show with no circus tent to hide in." Rourke and the camera then focus on the defending Mr. Olympia, Phil Heath: "For the 32-year-old champ, it's an honor."
We watch Heath defend his title on a stage that supports the incredible bulk of a number of captivating personalities, including a Texas hard-ass with quadriceps larger than tree trunks, a Japanese short stack dealing with an incredulous family, and an up-and-coming diva trained by an old, tyrannical Dutch woman known as "Grandma." It is a crew worthy of an "Expendables" style movie, but contender Kai Greene turns out to be the main attraction. Greene doesn't so much steal the movie as accept it as a gift from Yudin, who is heavy-handed with the lifter's story, playing up the big man's sensitive side and constructing a narrative that seems designed to leave the audience in awe of the valiant striver's abilities. If this version of Greene is bodybuilding embodied, then the sport is more catharsis for artists than desperate hobby for brutes.
Though Greene is undeniably a worthy subject for a film – he practices poses in subway stations wearing just a masquerade mask and tiny shorts – Yudin seems to be pulling the strings. At times the director's style is contrived, a clear reach for an epic tone, making Greene seem more like an excited understudy than a genuine hero. In one of the movie's first scenes, Greene, billed by the narration as Heath's "nemesis," watches footage of Heath's 2011 victory on an outdated television inside his apartment in the New York City projects. In another scene, Yudin juxtaposes Heath gloating and Greene brooding on a rooftop, looking off into the distance with the wind wiping his hoodie like Batman's cap, a cartoonish image made no less so by our protagonist's cartoonish physique. Neither man actually expresses ill will toward the other beyond the obligatory trash talk.
As for the topic of steroids, Yudin skims it briefly, offering no substantive investigation into a significant element of the sport. Only one of the featured competitors discusses steroids on camera and, of course, dismisses the accusations. There is not one mention of whether Mr. Olympia even tests for performance-enhancing drugs (a bit of information that would surely help audiences contextualize the admittedly impressive achievements of these Day-Glo orange men).
To watch 'Generation Iron' is to appreciate the exceptional determination of bodybuilders – the work that goes into the extreme training is inspiring, whether or not it is also partially pharmaceutical. That said, whatever message Yudin hoped to send with his 106-minute docudrama is undermined by the director's willingness to do the heavy lifting.