245 feet in four seconds, hurtling down at 70 miles per hour. For anyone who survives the fall, the water is 45° Fahrenheit, cold enough to cause hypothermia. Depending on the angle of impact, a body can sink forty to fifty feet under the water. Swift currents pull even strong swimmers out to sea. Over 98% of those who jump from the Golden Gate Bridge do not survive. This high mortality rate, combined with the majestic beauty of the iconic bridge, has made this one of the world’s most popular suicide destinations. This type of thing, according to a highway patrolman responding to a jump, happens all the time.
Director Eric Steel and his production crew spent 2004 filming the Golden Gate Bridge, capturing on camera 23 of that year’s 24 recorded suicides and several dozen thwarted attempts (many of which were prevented precisely because the crew was watching for jumpers). They interviewed family and friends of the dead, attempting to piece together the factors that would drive someone to climb over the iron railing and into open air.
There are those who recoil while reading the summary for The Bridge, as if it were an art-house Faces of Death glorying in the misery of those onscreen. But unlike the direct-to-video exploitation films of the 1980s, The Bridge is more interested in the victims’ stories than their final act.
Perhaps the squeamish reaction potential audiences have to the film stems from a cultural stigma around mental illness. To go one step further, perhaps the idea of suicide strikes an uncomfortable chord. As the parent of a jumper tells us in the film, “we all have those thoughts sometimes.” Are we afraid that proximity to people in despair might somehow affect us? That when approaching the edge, we might jump?
We have been told the suicide is the coward’s way out, a selfish act. Steel’s film explores the pain that precipitates such a decision, allowing us to empathize with the deceased, to see how much they endured. As an audience, we begin to question our preconceived notions on cowardice and bravery, torment and relief.
Lisa was a paranoid schizophrenic in and out of treatment centers. Her mother and sister describe her illness–it’s like having a bunch of TVs on at once and trying to focus on just one–and seem at peace with her choice. (Lisa’s brother, who believes suicide is a sin, speculates that her death may have been something else.)
Philip had attempted to kill himself before he made his way to the bridge. Despite supportive parents, he was unable to find his footing in life. His father, in one of the film’s most telling moments, notes that given his son’s determination and psychic turmoil, he had no choice but to let him go, to let his son find peace.
In all of this, the Golden Gate Bridge looms, spanning not only the bay but this world and the next. Steel shows every conceivable view of the bridge, the world’s most photographed man-made attraction, creating a sense of wonder that helps us understand the site’s mysterious pull on troubled souls.
We see happy families strolling the pedestrian walkway. We hear tour guides dispensing information. That the film captures frivolity and despair in the same place–often in the same frame–amplifies the tragedy only the audience can see coming.
In a crowd of tourists, one man climbs to the railing, pauses ever so slightly, and falls forward. The camera shakes and struggles to keep up, settling finally on the white saltwater spray of deadly impact. The victim is gone. Above, there are several confused people staring at the water, shouting, distressed. They know nothing except what they have seen. We, of corse, have heard the man’s life story, can understand (if not condone) his actions.
Kevin is a rarity–one of only 26 who have survived the fall. He arrived at the bridge intent on suicide but hesitant to take the leap. He paced around, crying, as other pedestrians and cyclists paid no attention to his
suffering. After a tourist asked the obviously distressed teenager to take her picture, he obliged but decided that no one cared about him. He hurtled the railing, realizing only then that he didn’t want to die. Due to a combination of quick thinking and luck, he was rescued.
His story provides a cautionary message, proof that four seconds is a long time to live with such a rash decision. In the 2003 New Yorker article “Jumpers,” another survivor explains it this way: “I instantly realized that everything in my life I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable, except for having just jumped.”
The Bridge is a somber, often painful experience, but in promoting compassion for the mentally ill and the alienated, it performs an essential service. By allowing us the context of each jumper’s backstory and then showing us their last desperate moments, the film asks us to put aside judgment, to accept these damaged individuals on their terms. In death, they have not only peace, but also our understanding.
Coming Soon: Jesse takes on The Virgin Suicides. (Yes, that’s an odd coincidence…)
And: My take on Bob Roberts