Though the week before Halloween may not prove the most opportune time to release a film showing the actual deaths of real people, Eric Steel’s documentary The Bridge is only half the snuff film it’s been made out to be. Inspired by an article in the New Yorker, Steel trained a number of cameras on the Golden Gate Bridge throughout the daylight hours of 2004 in order to record what amounted to 24 suicides. The finished film only shows a handful of these deaths, recorded from different distances by multiple cameras, and Steel surrounds this footage with interviews of the deceased’s friends, family, and strangers that happened to pass by. The controversial end product manages to be both morally unnerving and gut-wrenchingly powerful, often at the same time.
As a title explains at the film’s end, the Golden Gate Bridge is the single most popular place in the world for suicide attempts and seeing it filmed from so many different angles in all kinds of different light, it’s not hard to imagine why. With its ethereal, otherworldly beauty, the bridge holds allure as the perfect place for a literal leap into the unknown, yet it’s also so attractive because, as noted by one interviewee, it’s absurdly accessible. For every dreamlike image of the bridge, the film provides a similarly crushing real world comment, and it’s this very juxtaposition which helps the film to tackle the contradictory feelings raised by suicide. If the approach here seems troubling, maybe it’s suitably so, and at the very least Steel deserves credit for even attempting a film on a subject so publicly ignored.
It helps that the interviewees themselves are an unusually articulate group. One couple who lost their son discuss the helplessness borne of his relentless commitment to killing himself, while the friends of another jumper tell of turning a deaf ear to his daily, off-handed comments about wanting to die. One man who managed to save someone details his difficulty in breaking away from filming the act in order to help her, a beguiling story caught by Steel’s cameras that echoes the director’s own dilemma. But the most engaging story comes from Kevin Hines, a survivor with severe bi-polar disorder who despite a flood of tears is ignored by passerby (including a tourist who had him take her picture) and decides to jump before changing his mind in midair and landing feet first.
The film could perhaps benefit from Steel exploring his own exploitation quandary more, even though it’s hard to fault him for focusing on the loved ones left behind. The interviews don’t play as just an excuse for showing snuff footage, but Steel does structure the film’s final suicide as a strangely dramatic payoff of built-up suspense. It’s an undoubtedly questionable choice, but as with so much in the film, the confusion and anger it raises seem entirely appropriate.
The Bridge is currently playing at AMC Loews Village VII.