Early in The Bridge, director and producer Eric Steel offers a picture postcard view of the Golden Gate Bridge as it spans the bay from Marin County to San Francisco. It’s a sunny day with blue skies and puffy white clouds, and the waters of the San Francisco Bay glisten under the bridge’s rust-colored girders. Near the end of the shot, almost unnoticed at the bottom of the frame, something splashes into the water. One of the twenty-four people who jumped off the bridge in 2004 has just died.
Inspired by a 2003 New Yorker article about suicide notes, director and producer Eric Steel documented the Golden Gate Bridge for the entire year of 2004. (The bridge is by far the most popular place to commit suicide in the country.) Filming every day from multiple viewpoints, Steel and his crew recorded several of the over two dozen attempts that occurred in 2004. Steel then interviewed the victims’ families and friends. The resulting footage includes some of the most disturbing images you may ever see.
It is difficult to accept at first that the footage is real, that it hasn’t been doctored in some way by special effects or computer animation. Suicide is so culturally taboo that seeing people perform it evokes contradictory impulses of shame and revulsion but also empathy and fascination. This would be an uncomfortably voyeuristic experience if Steel weren’t so careful not to exploit the material. It’s an almost unbearably sad one instead.
Steel eschews a voice-over commentary that could soften the impact of the suicides. Nor does he offer the solace of a professional opinion. No psychiatrist or police officer provides explanations or excuses. The workings of the bridge–how it is maintained and patrolled, for example–are barely noted. No one mentions efforts to build a “suicide proof” barrier along the bridge’s pedestrian walkway.
Instead, much of the film consists of shots of pedestrians, filmed as they cross the bridge from cameras stationed on shore. Flattened into anonymity by telephoto lenses, the potential suicides look just like anyone else, like the tourists and joggers who pass by indifferent to what happens next to them.
Quiet, understated interviews give glimpses into the lives of the victims. “He always fell in love with the wrong person, ” one mother says. “She thought our dogs were devils,” reveals another. A friend offers an opinion that could apply to anyone: “Only love could have saved him.” Although stunned, the families seem to have adjusted to their losses. Some even show relief. Few are angry or judgmental. It is a measure of their confidence in Steel that they divulge so much to his camera.
Steel has been criticized for romanticizing suicide, even for showing people how to kill themselves. But if The Bridge has a moral, it is that the people who suffer are those who are left behind. And in one scene at least, as photographer Richard Waters helps a potential victim back over the railing to safety, the film offers a measure of hope.
Featuring: Gene Sprague, Carolyn Pressley, Dave Williams, Matt Rossi, Jen Rossi, Elizabeth “Lisa” Smith, Rachel Marker, Tara Harrell, Lyle Smith, Philip Manikow, Wally Manikow, Mary Manikow, Keith Glenn, David Paige, Shelley Albar, Gordon Smith, Daniel “Ruby” Rubenstein, James “Jim” Singer, Ginny Matthews, Kevin Hines, Pat Hines, Richard Waters.
Credits: Produced and directed by Eric Steel. Inspired by the New Yorker article “Jumpers” by Tad Friend. Executive producers: Alison Palmer Bourke, Evan Shapiro. Director of photography: Peter McCandless. Editor: Sabine Krayenbuhl. Music by Alex Heffes. Music supervisors: Christopher Covert, Jim Black. Sound design: Margaret Crimmins, Greg Smith. An Independent Film Channel presentation of an Easy There Tiger production.
IFC Films/Color/1.85/Dolby Digital/94 Mins./Rated R