Films that make me feel strong emotions are the reason I crave watching them so much. Even the films that knock me on my knees and make me feel despair or uncomfortable I enjoy as they created a powerful response within me. It’s rare for a film to make me feel such intense emotions like The Bridge as it is an objectively moving documentary, but that does not forgive how unethically its footage is used.
It’s no secret that the Golden Gate Bridge is a common location that people use to end their lives. There have been almost 2,000 reported suicides (likely many more unreported) at the bridge since it was opened in 1937. Before some suicide proofing installations were made, it was easy to climb over the side rail and jump into the water. Jumping from the bridge is almost always fatal (98%) as the fall to the water is more than 200 feet resulting in extreme blunt force trauma, and the cold current under the bridge is strong sucking most deep underwater and sometimes out to sea.
Inspired by Tad Friend’s article published in The New Yorker in 2003 titled Jumpers, Eric Steel captured over 10,000 hours of footage of the Golden Gate Bridge in 2004 with the intention to capture people jumping to their death. With his 10-person crew filming day and night using both close up lenses and wide-angle shots, Steel was successful in filming 23 of the 24 reported suicides on the bridge in 2004.
Steel obtained a filming permit from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area by claiming he intended to spend a year filming the Golden Gate Bridge to capture the “powerful and spectacular interaction between monument and nature.” He also lied stating that it would be the first part of a docu-series about national monuments. Steel was intentionally evasive because he didn’t want it to be public knowledge that he was filming around the clock watching for jumpers as he didn’t want to motivate someone’s suicide by knowing it would be filmed. Steel also clarified that he and his filming crew notified bridge patrol offices when they believed they were filming someone contemplating jumping, preventing seven suicides (two attempts from one person).
His true goal was to film jumpers to “allow us to see into the most impenetrable corners of the human mind and challenge us to think and talk about suicide in profoundly different ways.”
In addition to the filming of the bridge, Steel contacted and interviewed several family members of the jumpers he filmed which were featured prominently in the documentary. In these interviews the family and friends discussed their departed’s upbringing, personality, struggles, and last interactions with them before they passed. Before and while he was interviewing the family members, he did not inform them that he had filmed their loved one’s death.
These interviews are the most powerful aspects of the film. Listening to the friends and family attempt to understand what convinced their loved one to taking their own life and physically witnessing their pain is devastating. It allows the viewer to see the harsh impact suicide has on the people left behind.
Using the real footage of people jumping to their death intertwined with interviews of their family and friends is a strong foundation to make a powerful film about suicide, but that is all there is to this documentary, the foundation and nothing else. It feels unfinished in a way, like a first or second cut before the much-needed contextualization was edited in. Minus the final shot of the film where a title card reads “more people have chosen to end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge than anywhere else in the world,” there is no obvious or subtle explanation to why the film was made. There are no pleas for support of suicide prevention organizations, explanation for the need of suicide barriers installed on the bridge, or even information for crisis hot lines.
Steel started this project to challenge how society thinks about and discusses suicide. Showing people commit the act and incorporating commentary from their loved ones does not challenge how society views suicide any more than watching ISIS execution videos challenges how society views terrorism. It simply attracts viewers who want to satisfy a morbid curiosity. It is a jarring comparison, but if Steel filmed 23 people shooting themselves in the head with a shotgun on the Golden Gate Bridge, there is no way a film festival would ever consider showing this documentary, but the only difference is the gory violence associated with guns.
To use such sensitive footage Steel really needed to thread the needle on using it properly otherwise the documentary would be nothing more than an eloquent snuff film.
Throughout the film there are many wide-angle shots of the Golden Gate Bridge used as transitions between scenes. For the first few months of filming, the crew only realized they caught a death on camera when they saw a splash in these wide-angle shots. They later became more skilled in using the close-up lenses to capture the people climb over the barrier and jump.
In the final cut of the film, Steel uses these wide-angle shots as transitions between scenes and holds on them much longer than a typical scenic shot. Some of these transitions end with a visible and audible splash indicating that someone jumped. Every time one of these wide shots lingered on the screen, I scanned for a falling spec anticipating a splash, but often there wasn’t one. This is an effective tension building technique but equally exploitative.
Steel uses one specific jumper named Gene as a framing device to organize the film around. He receives more back story than the other people filmed and shots of him pacing on the bridge building up the courage to jump are included all throughout the documentary. The final scene of the film is of Gene finally standing on top of the railing and falling backwards with his arms spread out wide as he fell. Audio of Gene’s grandmother speculating on why he chose to jump off the bridge as his method for suicide, “maybe he just wanted to fly one time” was edited in right before he swiftly climbed the rail, stood up straight, and fell backwards. The scene is objectively captivating and emotional but also brutally tasteless. Steel used the audio of Gene’s grandmother as a soundtrack to his death like Zack Snyder uses pop music to score an action scene.
These effective filmmaking techniques become much more cynical and manipulative without a true purpose or goal underneath them.
I do believe Steel had good intentions in developing and creating this project, but he failed in justifying the use of the morbid footage. Steel had a real opportunity to make a film that looks at the complexity of mental illness that leads to suicide and explore the reasons why popular monuments such as the Golden Gate Bridge are a common spot for suicide. Using the darkly alluring footage of people jumping to their death can be a powerful tool if used for a greater purpose that is thoroughly explained. Without that explanation this documentary is extremely unethical making the post viewing experience an uncomfortable combination of guilt and confusion.