Equal parts extreme sport, artistic competition, and beauty pageant, world-class competitive bodybuilding is something few people really understand. Much in the way Ron Howard’s Rush, released earlier this year, was about the competitors, not understanding Formula 1 competition, the documentary Generation Iron largely eschews educating its audience on the intricacies of its subject matter in favor of focusing on the competitors themselves. And for the most part, this is a successful choice. Generation Iron isn’t a surpassingly great documentary, but it’s an entertaining one that holds interest from beginning to end thanks to its on-screen menagerie of personalities.
Perhaps the most unexpected quality of Generation Iron is the sheer number of athletes it tries to give coverage to. For large parts of the film, the focus is not on any particular man or storyline; rather we see short flashes of character in many competitors which, as they recur, gradually crystallize into recognizable personalities. One of the key subjects, for instance, is a man named Kai Greene. The doc opens with him performing for passers by in a New York subway station, but before we can even learn his name, we’re rushed off to other personalities. It’s only as the film returns to Kai again and again that we begin to understand his personality as an artist (he paints) and a bit of an introvert despite the fact that he makes much of his living displaying his body in public exhibition.
It’s a bold choice, but one that ultimately works for Generation Iron. While there are certainly more narrative portions of the film, this isn’t something like Hoop Dreams, which explored every nook and cranny of the lives of just two boys. This is a documentary which seeks to display its subjects as a cross-section of humanity at large, as varied and unique people with varied and unique personalities. The film relies on its quantity of subjects to communicate that notion visually, and mercifully never tries to hammer that notion with voiceover. Focusing on fewer bodybuilders would have necessitated the film go into much more detail outlining training regimens, particularities of diet. It would have likely painted its subjects primarily in terms of their daily machinations. As it is, we’re shown a panorama that communicates more the emotional journey of the people than the particulars of their regimens.
That said, the choice of focus is a bit of a double-edged sword. Because the film spends almost no time describing the details of the science, both nutritionally and physiologically, that goes into building such massive quantities of muscle, the audience is left wanting from time to time. We see all the competitors going to the gym every day. They may approach their workouts slightly different attitudes, but they all clearly work hard and we see them doing similar exercises. What is it that separates one bodybuilder from the other? The film never adequately answers this or similar questions despite the fact that it stresses the head-to-head competitive nature of a competition decided on minor degrees of separation. There are offhand comments on the importance of proper posing, but it never seeks to explain how perfectly symmetrical lats (or biceps, or abs) are formed. To the uninitiated, all we see is mass.
The holes in the chosen approach are never more apparent than in the brief section the film devotes to the subject of steroids. The picture at once acknowledges the health risks associated with steroid use, particularly uneducated and amateur steroid use, but also tries to dispel what the bodybuilding community (at a minimum) sees as myths which have been built up around steroids. It’s the one place the film actually tries a little to explain the science behind an aspect of bodybuilding (as compared to nutrition, for example, which is handled in very broad terms – “Diet is important,” “We have to carefully prepare all our own food,” that sort of thing). The subject of steroids feels like one the director (and writer, and producer) Vlad Yudin thought he needed to address, not one that was integral to the story he wanted to tell.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
Generation Iron is good documentary that doesn’t suffer from overt flaws so much as from audience ignorance. There’s no way the film would ever have time answer all the questions its audience will surely have while maintaining the thematic cohesion that is, generally speaking, in evidence. The doc does a good job of building an emotional response to its many subject athletes, and manages it in a way that feels very fair to reality. It doesn’t force drama where there is none, but is adept at pointing out the very real and human connection the audience might have with these otherwise alien behemoths. I felt left in the dark when it came to the details of and differences in each competitor’s training regimen, not to mention the way competitions were judged, but I can respect that this was at least a conscious choice to focus the picture’s energy elsewhere.