Eric Steel’s documentary THE BRIDGE is strong stuff, taking as it does the taboos of both death and of suicide and focusing on them without flinching. Almost the first image on screen is that of an anonymous someone stepping over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge and while the world goes on around him, peaceful and unseeing, he steps off the edge, plunges down, and disappears into the water. It’s almost too fast for the mind to take in, and eerie in the very silence of it, the quiet slipping from this life with barely a splash. There are none of the cinematic cues that we’ve been trained to expect, no blood, no sound of impact, nothing gratuitous. It’s a stark statement of fact.
Steel spent every day for a year, sun up to sun down, filming the eastern side of the Golden Gate Bridge, the side used by virtually all jumpers and. Using telephoto lenses, his cameras capture the astonishing differences in behavior of people about to plunge to the bay below at speeds that make impact with the surface of the water like hitting cement. Some are calm and deliberate. Others pace back and forth, visibly upset yet oddly invisible to the other people walking by them. One in particular, Gene Sprague, punctuates the film, pacing back and forth, dressed all in black, the wind whipping his long black hair, even from the distance that the camera can’t compensate for, all but thunderously wailing as he walks back and forth like a wild animal in a cage. As with the others who will jump, we hear the story of his life and meet the people he cared about and care about him. At the end of the film, when he climbs over the railing, even though it is the same motion as that jump that started the film, it is a completely different experience to watch. In fact, it is all but unbearable to see.
Far from being the exploitation of a lesser filmmaker, by recording the friends and families as they work through their thoughts and emotions, the film becomes an unusual act of compassion, lending a non-judgmental ear to the pain that lingers as well as celebrating the lives that were and are no more. There is the confusion of a couple who heard their friend talk so often and in such an offhand way about taking his life that they no longer took it seriously. There is the woman who struggles through tears and pain that remains sharp to recount how she didn’t intervene after a friend told her that he was seriously thinking about ending his life because she didn’t want to violate boundaries. And there are the parents who seem at first glance calm about their son’s fascination with the bridge and his openness about what he wanted to do. But there is the way they focus their attention of their pet dachshund and not each other, and the almost imperceptible catch in their voices that intrudes, revealing emotions too powerful to confront.
The most heartbreaking moments among many are those concerning John Kevin Hines, the one survivor. He talks about the indifference of everyone around him that delivered the final rejection that pushed him to go over the railing, and it was in that one moment, the second, he says, that his hand left the railing that he knew he’d made a mistake. His family, as with the friends and family of everyone depicted, weren’t uncaring, far from it. But neither were they in any way equipped to deal with the mental illness of their loved ones in a meaningful way. It is Steel’s agenda with THE BRIDGE to have a barrier built on the span to, if not prevent all suicides, at least reduce the number, and it is that one recollection above all that makes his agenda not just reasonable, but imperative.
By the end, Steel has made his point, and has done so by personalizing all the people who, by different paths, all ended up jumping from the same place. Gene, and by extension everyone else who has jumped from THE BRIDGE, is no longer a statistic, but a fully realized human being, who was failed by the system and is worthy of being both remembered and mourned as someone might have been saved.