Sunday, September 22, 2013

Film Review - Generation Iron

Last night I saw the much awaited pro bodybuilding documentary, Generation Iron.

This is the second "special interest" film I've seen in a theater this year.  The first was Snake & Mongoose, and the films shared some interesting similarities.  Both were guaranteed from the start to appeal deeply to the fanatics of their respective sports. Both were announced LONG before they actually made it to theaters.  It seemed to take forever for the opening days to arrive.  And both struggle, I believe, to appeal to a general audience beyond the hardcore drag race fans or bodybuilding afficionados.

Before arriving in the theater to see Generation Iron, I had read several online reviews.  The consensus view was that the movie deserved 3 stars out of a possible 4.  But after seeing the film, I would have to give it 4 stars out of 4.  It surpassed my expectations.

Some complained about the pacing of the film (too slow), but I didn't get that sense.  To me, the cycling around from one competitor to the next in semi-random fashion kept things interesting.

I have to say that I have never been a fan of Kai Greene.  I think his physique looks blocky.  I never have liked how ridiculously low his lats insert (just above the beltline!).  And sometimes, in previous interviews, Kai has seemed to lose the thread of what he wanted to say, the original sense of it having vanished in some artistic fog.  But in this film, he was coherent, never got lost, and was even eloquent at points.  By the time the film ended, I still liked Phil Heath's physique better than Kai's, but I liked Kai much better as a person.  The scenes of him painting were not only very dramatic, but beautiful to watch.

Some competitors I knew only from stage photos, and Generation Iron gave me the opportunity to know them as fully-orbed human beings. A case in point was bodybuilder Roelly Winklaar from Curacao.  His unique relationship with his trainer, Sibil Peters, who Roelly refers to as "Grandma," was a high point of the film for me.   The scene in which she chides him for staying up late at night on the internet and showing up for workouts tired is priceless.

Also priceless is the timing of the scene after which Branch Warren discusses the matter of injuries, and how most of his injuries have happened outside the gym.

One fantastic sub-plot which I truly enjoyed was the subtle Bro Science vs Official Science drama, the latter being embodied in the training of Ben Pakulski.  During the film, Official Science Dudes in immaculate white lab coats have Ben hooked up to high-tech computers which show exactly how he should do each repetition to stimulate the scientifically optimized muscle growth.  During one interview, Ben opines that only two of his competitors really stand a chance of beating him at the Olympia.  But it is a beautiful set-up for the defeat of Science and Technology at the hands of Old Fashioned Blood and Guts (as personified by most of the other Olympia competitors, but perhaps none as much as Branch Warren, who specifically mentions character, brutal hard work, and courage as being more necessary than optimality as defined by official science).  When Ben was not announced as one of the Top 10 for the Olympia, it seemed like a crushing defeat of Official Science by Bro Science.  Ten bodybuilders who trained without computers hooked to them went back on stage that evening, but not Ben Pakulski, who finished 11th.  But even here, the filmmakers are not heavy handed with the message, allowing the viewer to form his or her own conclusions.

I ended up the film really liking Pakulski.  His speech on steroids was pithy and epic.  "No you couldnt.  You couldn't do what I do," it concludes.   And he is right.

I liked getting to know Hidetada Yamagishi better.  I'd seen him compete before at the Arnold.  He seems to embody a kind of humility rarely found in bodybuilding, and I appreciated his struggle for something so difficult, when even his family does not seem to understand the importance of what he has achieved.

I have always liked Victor Martinez, both physique-wise, and as a person, and Generation Iron solidified those opinions in my mind.

I need to say a few words about Phil Heath.  Now, I am not unaware that filmmakers manipulate characters (yes, even in documentaries) for their own ends, to make the story "better" than it actually is, and that may have happened here.  But Phil's personality left me cold throughout this entire film.  Every other competitor seemed to be on the Olympia quest for some sort of higher reason:  God, family, vindication, art ... SOMETHING!  But Phil Heath seems to have made it all about Phil Heath.  The coolest thing, so he says, about a successful defense of his Olympia crown would be ... that it would make him, Phil Heath, feel like a god, like an Adonis.  It seems a less than noble goal.

If you are a hardcore bodybuilding fan, you have probably already seen the film or are plotting how to get to a city where it is actually showing.  If not, I would still recommend this film to you, as a very fine introduction to the state of professional bodybuilding today, the kinds of people it draws to its ranks, the things they must endure to succeed, and the look, feel, and grit of what it means to be a bodybuilder at the very highest level.