On a trip to San Francisco last month, I drove out to Marin County with a friend. We parked our car in the Vista Point parking lot, got out, and there, towering over a rise in the ground, was the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge’s two, 230-meter-high towers loomed majestically, wrapped in a shroud of drifting clouds, the traffic eerily disappearing into that, like it was going to someplace not of this Earth.
If you walk out onto the bridge, as I did on that foggy day, you reach a point in the middle where you are about 68 meters above the water. If you were to climb over the chest-high railing, and step into the air, you would have 4 to 7 seconds to contemplate your life while plummeting at 195 km/h, and then you would disappear into the cold waters of the bay. I wondered what you would think in those last few seconds; I wondered how many of the more than 1,300 (known) jumpers wanted to take back that last step of their lives, and how many embraced the deathly kiss of the sea.
The cause of these thoughts was director Eric Steel’s documentary on jumpers, “The Bridge.” He filmed the Golden Gate Bridge in 2004, when there were 24 successful suicide attempts. Steel caught many of them on film, in highly disturbing yet strangely mundane images of people climbing over the rail and suddenly plunging, or in ominous splashes just under the bridge.
This quasi-snuff aspect of “The Bridge” has generated some controversy, based on a fear that the filmmakers are exploiting tragedy here. Nothing could be further from the truth, though, as “The Bridge” is an insightful and sensitive look at suicide, both what drives a person to do it, and the scars it leaves on those who lose loved ones.
Steel has dug deep into the stories of several suicides that occurred during his watch, interviewing relatives and friends to describe what was going on in each jumper’s life, and how they have dealt with that loss. There’s Gene Sprague, 34, who the cameras caught pacing the bridge back and forth for an agonizingly long time before he jumped. A depressive Goth who had lost his mother to cancer, Gene had talked about if for a long time. His friend Dave Williams describes how he mostly just wanted to be in his room with his computer.
There’s Philip Maniknow, aged 22, whose jump was his third and successful try at killing himself. His parents, still obviously crushed by it, describe how things seemed normal, how Philip took out the garbage on the day he did it. Philip took a series of photos on his way out on the bridge, and the spooky, bleak shots are shown in the film.
There’s Lisa Smith, 44, whose father died when she was 14, and who had descended into schizophrenia — she was laughing when she jumped, witnesses say. Her mother states to the camera: “She’s in a better place now.” Her sister, poignantly, adds what the viewer is probably thinking: “You have to look at it that way.”
More incredible tales follow: Kevin Hines, 24, somehow miraculously survived his jump. His interview is an intelligent, moving portrait of dealing with depression. “I just want to be normal again,” he says, adding “I never will be.” Richard Waters, an amateur photographer, describes taking a series of photos of a woman climbing over the rail, and then realizing she’s going to jump and pulling her back. The final shot of her face, as she’s led away by police, is striking: She’s full of anger, not gratitude, at Waters for stopping her.
A feelgood film this is not, but “The Bridge” is riveting viewing, and gives one a greater understanding of both the impulse toward suicide and the difficulty in stopping it. One interviewee says, about his dead friend, “if we’d had him locked up, maybe he’d still be alive.” Yet who wants to put a friend in an institution? Several interviewees describe medication as making things worse, one clear lesson here, and all express the frustration of loving someone and not knowing why that love couldn’t reach the person they lost.
In the end, Steel’s documentary never really explains why the Golden Gate Bridge has become one of the world’s most famous suicide spots. The long, spooky time-lapse shots of the bridge being swallowed in the murk of passing clouds give it a sinister look, as if there’s something about the spot itself that’s calling people there. Walk out on the bridge on a gray day, and you’ll be inclined to agree.