The Bridge kicks off with a montage of serene everyday goings-on at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. It’s here where director Eric Steel lulls us into a false sense of security through shots of birds flying over the water, waves breaking into the harbour, and pedestrians going about their ordinary business. But then a middle-aged man climbs over the tiny barrier at the side of the bridge, and leaps into the abyss below without a moment’s hesitation. You may initially believe this to be the product of elaborate stunt-work or digital effects, but it’s the real deal. It sets the tone for what is about to come. And if you cannot stomach this staggering initial footage of a real suicide, you will not be able to deal with the rest of this ghoulish documentary, which contains authentic footage of numerous suicides.
The Golden Gate Bridge has the dubious distinction of being the world’s most popular suicide destination, with citizens leaping off the bridge once every fortnight on average. Throughout 2004, Steel and his team set up cameras on both the north and south sides of the bridge, recording all day for the entire year to capture images of people falling into the water below. During the year, twenty-four people committed suicide, and Steel’s team captured twenty-three of them on camera. It’s powerful stuff, though we often only see either just a splash or a close-up of a tiny human blur falling out of frame, with the operator struggling to follow the jumper. The Bridge is by no means an exploitative snuff film, however. Steel also filmed hundreds of hours of interviews with the families and friends of those who killed themselves, exploring possible motivations and giving us a portrait of several of the jumpers.
Wisely, Steel eschews voiceover narration throughout, employing well-judged soundtrack choices and straight-to-camera testimonials with interviewees without the aid of spoken questions. It may make the structure feel more jumbled, but it turns The Bridge into a genuine experience and a mood piece. Moreover Steel doesn’t baulk from exploring the possibility that some jumpers do not deserve our pity. It’s often said that suicide is selfish, especially if it’s a public suicide that will permanently disturb the strangers around you. Interviews are included here with a family of bystanders who witnessed one of the suicides, and it’s emphasised that this family’s pleasant day out was destroyed by someone’s death wish. As a result, the children will forever be traumatised. A less skilful documentary would paint the jumpers in a far more sympathetic light, but The Bridge presents differing perspectives without bias and lets us judge the people for ourselves.
One of the most effective constituents of The Bridge is the testimony of Kevin Hines, a young man who jumped off the bridge in the year 2000 but ultimately decided he wanted to live while falling. Hines managed to survive the fall with serious injuries, and went on to become a spokesperson about suicide and mental health. The Bridge also concerns itself with the story of Gene Sprague, one of the men who jumped in 2004. We hear fragments of Gene’s story sprinkled throughout the movie, occasionally seeing glimpses of Gene as he paces back and forth on the bridge, the wind whipping his long black hair. At the end of the film, we finally see him climb over the railing and fall into the waters below. We may have seen numerous suicide images prior to this, but we get so much time to acquaint ourselves with Gene, making this a wholly different experience. It’s unbearable to see Gene end his life.
Nevertheless, one gets the sense that The Bridge is somewhat lacking; there simply isn’t enough here. It feels as if Steel did not go far enough; he could have delved into the problem of suicide in a deeper fashion, and included interviews with experts discussing the psychology behind the jumpers. Considering this is Steel’s first documentary effort, though, The Bridge is a remarkable, eye-opening experience. It’s sad and moving, and it will linger in your mind long after viewing.