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The Bridge

A Powerful, Poignant Documentary

The Golden Gate Bridge is known worldwide for a variety of reasons, as an iconic symbol of San Francisco, as a monument to engineering, as an aesthetic object, and sadly, as a site for the most suicides at any one location. As the number of suicides steadily approached 1,000 in 1995, official record keeping ended. More than 20 people survived the four-second fall to the water below. Fascinated by the connection between the Golden Gate Bridge and potential suicide victims, first-time filmmaker Eric Steel embarked on a yearlong project, filming almost all of the suicides that occurred in 2004 and documenting the impact the various deaths had on the families and friends of several suicides.

For the end result, The Bridge, Steel and his crew ran cameras continuously during daylight hours for the entire year and interviewed the families, friends, and eyewitnesses of several of the suicides. Steel opens The Bridge by showing a variety of near-idyllic views of the Golden Gate Bridge via time-lapse photography, then switching to the tourists, joggers, and bikers making their way across the bridge, eventually focusing on one man, apparently in his early sixties, alone. The man hesitates for what seems a long time before crawling over the railing and jumping to his death.

Steel then segues to Gene Sprague, a distraught, longhaired, black-clad figure who hesitates, walks, stops at the guardrail, and hesitates again. We then meet a longtime family friend, Caroline Pressly, who describes Gene’s awkward childhood and difficult adulthood. We also meet several close friends, David Williams, and Matt and Jenn Rossi, who confirm Caroline’s description. They also express grief, anger, and confusion at Gene’s decision to end his life.

Steel next examines Lisa Smith’s story and it’s a predictably tragic one. Lisa began developing serious emotional and mental problems at 14 after her father’s death. She was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Incapable of living a facsimile of a “normal” life, Lisa shuttled from psychiatric hospitals to assisted living facilities. Multiple medications were part of her daily routine. Lisa didn’t survive her jump from the Golden Gate Bridge.

While Steel also examines the backstories of other suicide victims, mental illness, diagnosed or undiagnosed, is the common thread that connects them. Steel also delves into the “why”, as in, “Why the Golden Gate Bridge?” The answer seems to lie in the combination of natural and man-made beauty, a public space with a well-known history of suicide, and the need for isolated, alienated individuals to make a dramatic, public statement, but it still feels frustratingly incomplete. Interviews with psychiatric professionals or other experts would have helped fill in some of the blanks.

Not everything, however, is bleakness and despair. Steel’s cameras captured several failed suicide attempts, including a young woman who was pulled to safety by photographer Richard Waters, who first hesitated, but then responded forcefully. Although the young woman returned to the bridge a second time, police officers sighted her and escorted her from the bridge. Steel also includes Kevin Hines’ remarkable story: Kevin survived the fall, eventually recovering fully from his physical injuries.

To obtain permission to film at the Golden Gate Bridge, Steel didn’t disclose his real reasons for filming there. It’s understandable, given that the authorities overseeing the bridge would have probably denied permission, but it’s still troubling since Steel’s motives become open to criticism (e.g. exploitation, voyeurism, and what attempts, if any, were made to intervene in suicide attempts). Steel dispels most of that criticism, however, by his respectful, sensitive treatment of the interviewees. Still, we’re left wondering how much Steel disclosed to the families and friends of the suicides about his methods or the footage he had taken.

Questions or controversy aside, The Bridge ultimately emerges as a powerful, affecting documentary that brings us closer to the quietly desperate last minutes of the nearly two-dozen people who ended their lives in 2004 by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. We may not fully understand why they decided to commit suicide, but we can certainly empathize. Steel also leaves us with one of the most arresting, disturbing images recorded on film, made all the more powerful because of the glimpse we’ve received into the man’s life throughout The Bridge.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars