When I was in the Air Force, stationed at the Presidio of Monterey, I began reading the San Francisco Chronicle. I was especially drawn to the columns of Herb Caen, the surreal world of the society pages, the short pieces about odd incidents (“Worker Felled by Dead Tuna”), and especially the suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge. Each jump, each individual, was unique, and the Chronicle always seemed to find a salient point that made me gasp or ponder. I still recall the hapless suicide who missed the water, crashing instead through the deck of a passing boat. In my time as a Chronicle reader, Golden Gate Bridge suicides numbered in the 400’s, and each suicide was identified by number. In 1995, during my time as a New York Times reader, I found an article by Jeff Stryker, “An Awful Milestone for the Golden Gate Bridge,” which talked about the number approaching the 1,000 mark.
I say all this in preface to a comment on Eric Steel’s film, The Bridge (2006) which I saw for the first time this week. In 2003, Steel read a piece in The New Yorker, “Jumpers” by Tad Friend. Steel was so taken that he moved from New York to San Francisco, hired film crews, and during 2004, he filmed the bridge from several angles, all day long, all year long. He documented 23 of the bridge’s 24 suicides. (The film crews always called 911 when they saw any suspicious behavior, and a number of the people they observed were talked out of jumping. Others simply gave the authorities no time, or jumped after assuring everyone that they were only out for a walk.) Steel also interviewed the friends and family of six of the jumpers, as well as a young man who had jumped and lived.
The film was greeted with gratitude in some quarters and horror in others — gratitude for raising awareness of the issue and showing the pain of the survivors, and horror by those who viewed The Bridge as little more than a snuff film.
Personally, I think it’s one of the most remarkable films I have ever seen. Yes, if you have any feelings at all, it is horrifying. When the first man clambered over the rail and leaped, I was stunned; this was real. At times you are looking at a picture postcard shot of the Golden Gate, thinking it beautiful filler before the next interview, and suddenly there is a splash. Someone, out there in the distance, has just died.
Yet when a family is being interviewed, telling about how their son planned his suicide and bought a ticket to San Francisco, talking about how helpless they felt, about how they have second-guessed themselves endlessly, wondering what they could have done… the entire time, their little brown dachshund is migrating from lap to lap to be petted, on his back in one shot, burrowed between legs in another, and we see life going on. The Bridge doesn’t have an answer; it just asks the questions as eloquently, as powerfully, as anything I have ever seen before.