The Bridge is a controversial film that documents the “suicide phenomenon” at The Golden Gate Bridge. In the span of January through December 2004, filmmaker Eric Steel continously filmed this bridge, known to be a mecca of sorts for those who want to end their lives, and was able to capture 23 of 24 suicides on film. It features real footage from these real suicides and suicide attempts, along with interviews with grieving family members, friends and witnesses to those suicides. The keyword here is “real”. It’s unlike comfortably watching a Hollywood movie with its professional stunts as a detached viewer, knowing it is all “just for show”. At first glance, it sounds kind of morbid and in many ways, it is. We are, after all, witnessing the final moments of someone’s life and this is all presented as a form of entertainment. But there seems to be some morbid curiosity innate in all of us, a curiosity about death, and this film really addresses that curiosity.
Some may criticize The Bridge on the basis of it perceivably glorifying suicide or perhaps, in some ways, encouraging it by romanticizing it. In reality, I think any film that undertakes such a taboo topic as suicide will invoke strong feelings on either end of the spectrum. It really depends on your perspective on it going into the film. For me, I thought the movie was disturbing, yes, because it’s surreal knowing that these people you are watching on your screen, as they plunge into the murky water, are no longer living and you are a virtual witness to someone’s death. One can even call it a snuff film. However, albeit disturbing, it still offers a candid and thought-provoking view on the topic. In some of the interviews with the family members, while you can see their hurt in losing a loved one, there’s also a sense of acceptance, that they are happy that their loved one is finally at peace and even an understanding of the reasons behind the act of suicide. These sentiments are also juxtaposed with an interview with John Kevin Hines, a survivor of the Golden Gate plunge. He tells his tale of how he struggled with bipolar disorder and one day, just snapping. He left school and took a bus to the bridge, where he later stood crying and contemplating taking his own life (even taking a photo for a tourist oblivious to what he was planning to do). Soon thereafter, he climbed over the barrier and jumped. As he was taking the 220 foot (67 m) plunge into the water below, a fall that takes just 4 seconds at 75 miles per hour (120 km/h), he almost instantly regretted his decision and decided to try his best to fall in a position that allowed him to live. And he did, surprisingly and miraculously.
The protagonist of this documentary, if you will, as he is the suicide victim prominently featured, is 34 year old Eugene “Gene” Sprague. Throughout the film, it shows him nonchalantly pacing back and forth on the bridge, with his long black hair blowing in the wind. We are also given insight into the life of Gene, shedding light as to who he was as a person in life and accentuating the fact that he, like all the other suicide victims, is more than just another statistic of Golden Gate Bridge suicides. His friends and those close to him tell of how he was severely depressed after his mother died and as a result, how he was feeling lost in life. Some of those interviewed seemed at peace with his decision, some were angry, but all wished that things could’ve worked out differently. At the end of the film, Gene sits on the ledge of the barrier and without any hesitation, he gets up to stand on the ledge and falls backward into the Pacific Ocean. The water ripples and then few seconds later, it is as if nothing had happened.
Another one of the memorable jumpers featured in the film is this older guy in what appears to be a matching sweat suit. He’s casually on his cell phone, talking and laughing as if having a grand old time. Watching his behaviour, it never occurred to me to think that this is one of the jumpers as the footage on the bridge does not include just suicides. After he finished talking on the phone, he puts his phone down and sits up on the ledge, facing the body of water below. With a quick sign of the cross, he jumps over. Meanwhile, as with a few other of the suicides captured on film, there are people in the background walking by or standing around appreciating the sights and sounds. There was even a couple within a few feet of Gene when he got ready to fall but they didn’t notice him or just didn’t do anything. However, there are a few instances of intervention by a by-stander in the film, including a man who managed to grab a girl standing on the beam on the outer edge of the bridge and pull her back to safety.
As you’re watching these people on the ledge or on the beam, getting ready to jump, you really wonder what’s going through their heads. What are they thinking as they step off or fall back into the unknown? Are they scared? Are they intoxicated with joy to be released from their mortal pain? And as they are free-falling, do they instantly regret it like John Kevin Hines did? Sadly, while the interviews to shed light on the suicide victims were interesting, the film itself feels lacking and dissatisfying as to addressing the inner-depths of the topic of suicide. As to what could be done to make The Bridge better, I don’t know, short of impossible notions such as bringing back the dead to truly understand the experience and the decision.
What I did ascertain from watching this film wasn’t necessarily a complete change of attitude toward suicide, nor do I believe that was the filmmaker’s intent, but rather two main ideas. One being the need for a suicide barrier for the bridge because while I am sure that those determined to end their lives will find a way to end it, making it that much more difficult will help deter some. The accessibility of the Golden Gate Bridge for Bay Area residents, the fact that there’s a small survival rate and it being relatively “unmessy”, are what makes the bridge such an alluring spot for suicide. Apparently, it’s a matter of economics and aesthetics that is causing the delay to erect this barrier to save lives. Secondly, one of the most moving parts of the film that really stuck with me was when they talked about a man who left a note in his apartment that said he would not jump from the Golden Gate Bridge if, on the way to the bridge, he met one person who smiled at him. The man jumped because no one smiled at him or greeted him and that was all it took to save his life. Living in our fast-paced and alienating world, where we are so consumed with our own lives, it’s moments like this when a light-bulb goes off and you realize that one small gesture toward another human being, a stranger even, can make all the difference. Sure, a meaningful smile or friendly word may not be all it takes to save a person’s life; however, maybe if we all took a moment out of our day to give a stranger a smile or a “hello”, the world could be a better place. One can imagine…
It should be noted that Eric Steel and his film crew had the bridge authority’s number on speed dial so that whenever they observed a person they deemed high risk to jump, they would call it in right away. As Steel noted, they were human beings first and filmmakers second. During that time of filming, Steel and his team saved six people, and one person more than once (ABC News).
The Bridge’s voyeuristic approach may be effective in revealing another dimension of suicide but for me, the result is mostly a feeling of inexplicable uneasiness, which can be expected considering the last scene. It might not be as enlightening as one may hope, but it may still be worth watching if not just for satisfying a morbid curiosity.
The Official Site