By Bryan Newbury
August 4, 2007
Most of us remember that jarring nature film moment in our formative years. The one where the film crew flexes its objectivity by choosing not to intervene in the preventable demise of some poor beast caught in the mire. There are a few ways to approach that moment. First, one might set aside the emotional element and take the “scientific” view, that Cartesian cruelty that would make him only observer, never participant. Second, there is the prerogative of the filmmaker, whose intervention would taint the work. Third, that of the human being, aghast at such apathy no matter the means.
Eric Steel’s The Bridge dredges up that conflict in the viewer. Though the plaudits of critics seem to validate views one and two, view three never seems to disappear.
The setting of The Bridge is San Francisco’s Golden Gate. An architectural marvel and national treasure, The Golden Gate Bridge draws shutterbugs and newlyweds from around the world. Unfortunately, such majesty also provides arguably the ultimate means with which to do oneself in. Through just over an hour and a half, the viewer observes along with the filmmaker as men and women brace themselves, hurdle the barriers and plunge to their demise.
While there is much to question in the approach and execution of the film, there can be little argument about the quality of the cinematography. There’s a truism in the photography world that one can’t help but to take a good shot in India. The same could be applied to filming in San Francisco. The seemingly constant fog contrasted with the hours of California sun make for fantastic images, as much for an editor as a cameraman. To seasonal affectives, the atmospheric yo-yo is something out of Dante. If you’re shooting a picture, it is a bounty. This is not to say that Steel & Company don’t display an eye. On the contrary, the viewer ends the film feeling that the same crew could produce a work of stunning imagery in a Dallas suburb. As with any gift, this demands the greatest care not to go around the bend. Sadly, that is just what The Bridge does.
Take the star of the film, Gene Sprague, as an example. Some might recoil at such a designation. In the context of the film, that is precisely how the jumper is treated.
Suicide comes in all forms. Frail people, hearty people, plain people and arresting people. Sprague is the latter, clad in black with long, dark hair that moves in the furious Bay winds. It is no accident that his suicide bookends The Bridge. While it would be naïve to suggest that the crew attempt to prevent any or all of the twenty four jumpers of 2004, it isn’t too much to ask that the sanctity of human life might trump the aims of a work. One critic salutes The Bridge for its lack of “religious cant and of cozy New Age bromides.” Fair enough, but this topic and this film are all about lines and where to draw them. Just as the friends and relatives ponder where the line is drawn between stopping a suicide and unseemly intrusion, the viewer must ask just how far can a filmmaker go in taking on this subject without getting too cute with his editing. New Age bromides notwithstanding, there is a real urge to chastise he who would use the ultimate in human despair for what amounts to stage blocking.
Despite this criticism, there is a lot to ponder. The setting itself, for starters. As Philip Manikow’s parents point out, there has to be a sort of majesty in it. If a person has come to that point, what could be more liberating than a free fall into (and from) such a picturesque locale. Symbolically and physically, the release must make at least two of the four seconds bounding to certain death perversely serene. To this end, it is correct to assert that jumping off the Golden Gate, though it is suicide, isn’t like any other kind. Though there is little in the way of an answer presented, there are some helpful clues for those concerned about a loved one. It is fair to attest from the anecdotal evidence provided in the interviews that if a person of interest is striking out at online dating and clad in charcoal whilst living more than an inch west of the Hudson, it is time to seek professional help.
About halfway through, one gets the feeling that the film is about to enter the second act. Namely, the pathology of suicide. Almost, but after a short jog in that direction, it continues down the vignette path. To be sure, the story that seems to set this up and not pay off is one hell of a story indeed. In a subject whose primary trade is in shock, the tale of Kevin Hines raises the bar. Be that as it may, there is a nagging feeling that simply having a sledgehammer of a subject does not entitle the filmmaker to lose the script.
Eric Steel has no obligation as a citizen to offer the viewing public a solution to suicide in general or the Golden Gate jumper phenomena in particular. As a filmmaker, he brings this upon himself.
What is troubling is that The Bridge confronts us with the question of what is actionable. No solution is offered. Again, it is a lofty request to make. This is a lofty subject. If a person watches a documentary on Iraq, he might write his Congressman. One on Katrina, she could give to the Red Cross or the NAACP. Even in a nature film, the provocation can be converted into action through political and economic means. In fact, politics and economics, if they are even viewed separately, shape nearly all the exigencies of our daily existence. It is to Steel’s credit that he avoids a “political” documentary, but surely there is an aspect of public policy, say, access to walking on the bridge, that could be addressed. In general terms, there is the lingering question of how to obviate the act as either a state or concerned individual.
With The Bridge, we’re confronted with the helplessness that the interview subjects have obviously dealt with on an exponential scale. Some of the jumpers suffered from severe mental illness, some addiction, some simple desperation onset by the parade of small failures most of us perceive or encounter. The common thread is that each person profiled had friends and/or relatives who were struggling to stop them from the act with whatever abilities they had. Just as it perturbs the apt viewer when one of those political films betrays him by turning needlessly didactic, The Bridge leaves him begging for some kind of answer.
Oddly, the American character in the 21st Century comes off pretty well. This provides little comfort. Comfort would be to prove the cynical conjecture that those who take their own life are completely at the end of their rope, or that their sense of absolute abandonment was merited. To this, one of Gene’s friends put it plainly but best: “Gene had people who loved him.” Another friend follows this. “I don’t have any answers.” None of the people in The Bridge were so alone that, as we might imagine, at the end of life there was no one to grieve. The bereaved are all over, left with little besides pain and confusion. In some cases regret, but in most cases a pervasive bewilderment.
What answers can one filmmaker offer? Hard to tell, but that irksome sensation that some answer, any answer, is owed us. At least an attempt. Just as the buffalo drowning slowly in the bog on Mutual of Omaha sticks with a person, the feeling that The Bridge is more concerned with the work than the subject never goes away. It is captivating. Even with all of these unseemly qualities, the urge to dial back and watch it all over again is surprising. Still, one could submit that something this heavy comes with a responsibility attached. If you lead us down this road, don’t leave us like Gene’s friend, saying we have no answers.
Eric Steel, Easy There Tiger, Inc., 2006
Color, 94 minutes
Jimmy Fellers on September 7th, 2007 at 2:36 am
First of all, I admit that I, too, was disturbed by the fact that the filmmaker chose to document people jumping to their deaths. I was horrified to see this in action. I believe that life is always preferable to death. However, and not lightly, I might argue (with myself as well as with you) that these people would have jumped whether or not the filmmaker’s cameras were recording these events. (And, apparently, the filmmaker and crew did notify bridge security whenever they identified a potential jumper.) Please consider perhaps that the filmmaker’s intention was to cause the rest of us–you, me, etc.–to address the issue of suicide by shoving it into our faces (an intrusive action which, unfortunately, seems to be required when addressing a subject such as mental illness or suicide) and NOT to provide answers. Perhaps the answers are required to come from us after the filmmaker has asked the questions. This seems to me to be the usual purpose of documentary filmmaking: To incite the viewer into some positive action after being stimulated into such action by the documentary film itself.
Your statement regarding one of many reasons to suicide: “…some simple desperation onset by the parade of small failures most of us perceive or encounter,” illustrates the general misunderstanding of and active derisiveness toward those who kill themselves. It seems to be nearly universal that people find it more comfortable to ridicule the things they fear rather than to confront, acknowledge or understand them. Your phrase diminishes the “desperation” of the suicidal person in the face of “small failures” and relegates the most important decision of his or her life to the realm of the weak and the whining. The tragedy, at which you seem to be laughing, is that even though these things may be in the eyes of others “simple desperation” and “small failures,” to the suicidal person they are the proverbial last straw, or the final sign that it would be better for them to die than to continue living. They have already expended enormous effort and energy just to be partially functioning, according to the rest of us, at this point, now. While our daily reality may be about sunny days and needing to mow the lawn, their daily reality is more likely to be all about the fact that they hurt. Period. This is why it is referred to as mental “illness.” It isn’t what most people consider to be correct or even conceivable; but to the suicidal it is stark and inescapable reality. They do not necessarily want it. Most of them, it seems, do not. Do you want the flu when you have it, or worse, Cancer? Of course not. Unfortunately, they have it, whatever it is, anyway; and they have to deal with it the best that they can, moment by moment, without the societal stamp of approval given to other, more acceptable maladies. Sometimes, as you can see and hear in this film if you look and listen closely enough, the only solution they can find to their distress is their own death. It stops the pain. That may not be the “real” truth as you and I may see it; but it is the only truth that they can see. Have you ever reacted to a situation or responded to a statement fully convinced that your interpretation of events was absolutely correct, only to find that nothing you assumed to be true was, in fact, true? (I once swerved a car to avoid hitting a drunken man running into the road in front of me, only to discover that what I saw was actually a similar shape made by vines growing on a streetlight support cable. You can admit to something similar, I’m sure.)
This is the force that you can see in this film driving “Gene” to stand upon the bridge railing, hold his arms out as wings or cross-members, and then, seemingly gleefully, fall backwards to his death, in spite of the fact that there are people who obviously and demonstrably love him (and in spite of us, as we watch, willing him to fly). Again, the tragedy is that his perception of his own pain was stronger than his belief in the love of those who would otherwise protect him. This was not his choice, but his burden. And he apparently saw the only solution to his, learned through long experience, inescapable pain as being the ending of his existence. As much as he may have loved his friends who loved him and may not have wanted to hurt them, he also apparently had a pain that could not be eased, even by the very love for which he was searching. Consider the amount of strength and resolve it takes to walk the bridge, vault over the rail, and voluntarily jump to one’s death when most of us can’t hold our breath for more than a minute or so, if that, before the survival instinct takes over and forces us to breathe again. This is a small measure of the power of the pain that these suicidal people are trying to manage on a daily basis. It’s not so much that they want to die as it is that they can’t find any alternative that works for them. I propose that no one chooses to die. Some do, however, submit to death. They die only as their last remaining perceived alternative.
In answer to your review, if we should, as you suggest, come away from this particular film with the feeling that someone other than ourselves should be responsible for addressing the issue of suicide, then we abdicate the responsibility to our fellow humans that is implicit in our own human existence. If we do that then we become like those people depicted in the film, either verbally or visually, who were oblivious to the life-ending emotional pain of the suicidal subjects. We would do better to emulate the actions of the man who, apparently acting on instinct, pulled a suicidal woman back over the railing and saved her life, at least for that moment.
To require the filmmaker, again as you suggest, to provide an answer to the question of suicide is akin to requiring the maker of any other documentary to provide answers to the questions that are raised by his or her film. Isn’t it the implied aim of socially conscious documentaries that they should portray to those of us who would otherwise remain unexposed to their subject(s) the reality lived by their subject(s) in order to expand our own understanding of the human condition beyond our limited view? Isn’t the purpose of such films to cause their viewers to think and to react, rather than to spoon-feed them not only a particular issue but also a prepackaged solution to that issue? Are we so lazy that we now require of our “thoughtful” films that they also do the thinking for us? I hope that this is not the case.
To be honest, I don’t know exactly what I feel about “The Bridge”. I find it incredibly sad. I find it also angering, puzzling and disturbing. I believe, however, that this was the exact intention of the filmmaker. I believe that this is what I am supposed to be feeling. I am not dissatisfied because the filmmaker didn’t give me answers; I am instead motivated to reach out to my fellow humans and thereby to work toward an answer. Perhaps this was the filmmaker’s hope.
Thank you for reading.
KC on September 16th, 2007 at 12:36 pm
Watching people take their own lives is disturbing – most people will agree – although I think it is unfair to criticize the filmmaker for documenting it. That is, after all, the essence of genre. I don’t believe that it is our place as documentarians to morally edit real life. I would throw down my camera in a nanosecond if the person in front of it were crying out for help or unconscious and in imminent danger. This situation was complete different, and I strongly believe that it was not the filmmaker’s responsibility to police the physical safety of these people, nor was it his moral responsibility not to show it. Officials near the site even said that the practice was very common.
The reference to using Gene Sprague’s personal tragedy as a mere blocking tool is almost offensive to me. Using his experience to frame the story was very powerful in helping me to find some semblance of insider understanding into these individual’s personal struggles in trying to cope with life. I looked at Mr. Sprague more as the main character in a story that needs to be told in order to make us all more aware of the tacit symptoms of psychological diseases like this. This could be happening to any one of our own loved one’s, at this very moment, and this film has given us a way to better understand the scope of the problem and its symptoms.
CK on November 30th, 2007 at 3:09 pm
I just saw The Bridge last night for the first time. Having been diagnosed with two severe, chronic mental illnesses about a year and a half ago, I absorb as much information as possible. This documentary is useful because it brings to light shortcomings in assistance for the mentally ill. To anyone with a severe mental illness, suicidal thinking is neither “sensational” nor “disturbing”. It’s just another symptom of mental illness. Personally, I’ve been less unnerved by suicidal/homicidal thoughts than I have been by seeing stuff (that isn’t there) moving out of the corner of my eye. Mental illness can be a lot like having a broken record in your brain that is stuck on the same thought unceasingly. It doesn’t have to be pain that leads to suicide, it can be these constant, intrusive thoughts or even a voice suggesting the act. Regardless of what immediately precedes a suicide, mental illness that hasn’t been treated adequately is the culprit (not external events or relationships with people). Unfortunately there is no cure for mental illness, only ways to manage or lessen symptoms (including suicidal thinking). If people want to take action as a result of this documentary, find a way through mass media to make sure people know the signs of mental illness in its early stages; begin to provide access to psychiatrists and medication despite the limitations of insurance coverage; and encourage coping and living skills for the mentally ill (rather than hospital stays or social security disability incomes). There never has been adequate care available for mental illness. Recent, better medications have helped combat mental illness somewhat. However, sitting around doing nothing everyday or believing that you aren’t capable of living a full life makes mental illness worse. There needs to be a revolution in care that shows the mentally ill how to face the stresses and fears of everyday life rather than hide in a hospital, group home, or parent’s house. It’s obvious by seeing the people in The Bridge who completed a suicide that none of them had any skills to deal with living with their mental illnesses (and their families/friends knew nothing about mental illness). They could have learned how to cope better with mental illness by recognizing what thoughts and behaviors are the illness and by seeing them as symptoms that will pass. It’s possible to never commit suicide even though your illness puts these thoughts in your head, but not without a correct diagnosis from a psychiatrist (not a family practice doctor or counselor/therapist), medication that works well for you, and having friends/family who force you to become self-sufficient, self-coping, and self-supporting (even financially). Treating mental illness properly, not adding safety features to bridges, will prevent suicides.
RW on June 8th, 2008 at 12:15 pm
There are many things that can be said about “The Bridge” and the lives of those that ended during its filming. What I will say ,flat out, is that The Bridge is a beautiful film-which may sound strange to some- until they have seen it. The movie is far and away one of the most important documentaries ever made by virtue of the subject matter. It very poignantly puts a very human issue before our consciousness so that we might grow in our understanding; rather than speak in judgement as some have done here; and that is what I won’t do . I won’t speak in judgement of those that took their lives. I didn’t know those people. Those that did know them are excluded from my comments about judgement, because they were hurt by the loss of their friends or family members,etc, so I won’t judge them for anything they said about the people they lost.
The rest of us however-for whom those lost lives were part of a realm called the unknown- tend to exhibit a marked tendency to judge. From our position outside the subjective inner torment of others, we make all sorts of statements which do little more then make our values known while telling others that we believe that if we were in a similar situation we would do differently than those who chose to check out.
This is of course nonsense, since if we really could be in another’s situation–feeling as they did– we would indeed have to be them.
Judgements made about the life skills and capability to cope of those who self terminate is meaningless and without merit , because they are no longer here to offer defense for their actions, and would most likely not feel inclined to provide justification for their suicide to those for whom their lives were part of the unknown.
Eric Steel has done the world a service. He has not produced some sort of incentive for others to jump. Those that will end their lives at the bridge or in any manner will likely do so regardless of, “The Bridge” or any other movie. ITS ALREADY WITHIN THEM.
Meanwhile, those of us for whom life is too valuable to quit, must remember the power we each have to assuage the inner agony of those lost within themselves; lost within the isolation that is the key feature of our experience as a human being, particularly when it comes to the experience of pain. It may seem like a stretch to believe that we can give others the will to live, but it has happened. It may be impossible in all cases, because not all people in a state of despair can be pulled from it.
Nevertheless, we can never know beforehand that the person in our midst is beyond the point of being called back from the brink, and thus we must try. Should we find ourselves in the presence of someone perhaps temporarily without the will to live, we would do well to make an effort to get out of ourselves for a moment and extend whatever feeling of friendship,kinship,we can muster. Awesome proposition ?. Yes, in this world of human beings living each as an emotional island it may seem impossible to many ,but never for all. I see that understanding running through the film,as well the realization that in some cases we will have to let go.
Its strange, but here in America, where the new age spiritual smorgasbord flourishes, so many have yet to figure out that what people want most, more than fame or fortune, more than personal development or enlightenment; is to be loved by one in whom we can see ourselves mirrored truly,honestly,but without judgement.
Eric, thanks to you and your crew for making the movie.
Scott Zalkind on August 22nd, 2008 at 3:38 pm
Gene Sprague was among my closest friends in jr high. We hung out just about every day – his mother was quirky, but a fantastic painter and Gene a gentle soul who shared a love for comic books.
Someone who was a mutual friend sent me a link to the YouTube clip from this film – the section featuring Gene. he said Gene had taken his own life – what he failed to mention was that I was about to watch a snuff film of my friend’s last moments.
I cannot get over how calm and purposeful he was at the moment he jumped. I can only weep for the sadness and dispair that must have driven him to that length.
When we were kids (not long after the young picture displayed was taken) Gene was odd, sure. It was part of his appeal. he had a dry wit and a “f u if you’re offended by me” attitude, but he also didn’t mean anyone any harm whatsoever. People looked at his leather jacket and jet black hair and assumed the worst – and thus knew nothing about him. Their loss.
I am more sad today than I’ve been in years. I lost touch with Gene about 15 years ago – life moves on and we went in different directions. Now I am sad that I hadn’t kept in touch – wasn’t able to be there for him to tell him how much he meant to me as a friend when we were kids. And now I never will.
I understand the impetus for this film – and I understand that not talking about it won’t help the problem. But was it truly necessary to film the moment of impact? Can’t we simply assume these people died? I could have gone my whole life not seeing that and would have been better off for it.
I also fail to realize why, after seeing several people kill themselves, the people filming this didn’t call the authorities when they witnessed Gene walking the bridge for 90 minutes+. I mean, they obviously suspected something or they wouldn’t have filmed him. I read their response to this challenge and found their answer to be woefully lacking. More obvious is that they wanted to get thier “money shot”.
as I said – I agree with the effort the film maker went to to produce this, and I appreciate the fact that they say they wish to help prevent suicides from the GG Bridge (and in general). However there are better ways.
Finally, as disturbing as it was for me to watch that clip on YouTube and quite literally watch my friend die, it is even more disturbing to see the way the clip fades to black at the moment of impact, making it appear to be a peaceful death – I fear that by making an esthetically beautiful film of this action, and presenting it so, it will in fact inspire others who are contemplating suicide in this manner. What isn’t shown is the victim drowning in their own blood when the internal organs explode upon impact – a process that takes several minutes. There’s nothing beautiful about this kind of death, and Gene Sprague’s death in particular is a loss of a terrific friend, artist, and human being.
This event has forever impacted my life, and will leave me with this disturbing image for the rest of my days. For that I damn this filmmaker to hell where he should suffer the most unbearable sadness imaginable. Maybe then he’ll understand the profound sense of grief his film has caused me, and likely many others who counted themselves among Gene Sprague’s friends.
And for the record, he wasn’t “goth” as many say – Gene dressed in all black, died his hair and painted his nails starting in 1983 when we were 13 yrs old. His favorite band was KISS and he was a huge Billy Idol fan. If anything he was punk. So please stop calling him goth. Thank you.
Richelle Kellen on September 22nd, 2008 at 4:41 pm
Gene had a somewhat tragic life living alone with little friends or even food for that matter. From his blog you can tell he was in the midst of a deep depression. Genetic maybe, who knows but he seemed to never see light at the end of the tunnel. So many came forward after his death, but the sad thing is he had no family to speak of and few friends at that. Where was everyone when he was alone on xmas. I dont think anyone should be alone at that time. Such tragic endings to a wonderful hearted person. I feel deeply saddened for this. I feel no matter what, he would have likely committed suicide no matter what. We will never know now. rest in peace Gene.
Kris k. on July 17th, 2009 at 7:37 am
Bottom line — somebody had to make this film.
Eric Steel did.
Eric Nustad on December 17th, 2009 at 5:08 pm
Having seen The Bridge twice, I want to say that it takes into one of the last private places left in humanity. This is something I know, having lost my Grandfather to suicide when I was 9 or 10. I am saddened/fascinated by it, and though it seemed so macabre, I have this empty curious feeling and this film helped me to understand it (that and the fantsctic book NIGHT FALLS FAST by Kay Redfield Jamison; one the best books on suicide)
I was very tense when I first saw this, especially the opening sequence….you knew someone would die…who? when? where? Everyone seemed normal, but then that ONE person, who seems as normal as everyone else climbs over and jumps…Striking and tragic but most troubling was that within moments the feeling was gone, replaced with a “O.k. I saw it” emotion. Wow…so sad.
There has been criticism that the film almost romanticised suicide and should have been more of a warning. Should the film makers showed the mangled remains?? Kind of like a cigarette warning sticker…..”This is what happens if you jump…” kind of thing? Come on, please. Do we need to dump an opened corpse onto the dock? I had enough trouble watching the film as it was……I think we ALL know how f____ up you would be hitting the water at 80+ mph.
I think showing Gene Sprague’s story was good. It was comforting, I guess, to get the full story on just ONE of the men and women who decided to end their life. We saw what was hapenning the months, then weeks, then days and then hours before he killed himself, thinking “If only I’d known him, maybe……” I think we ALL felt that, and that could be said for every one who jumped.
You seemed really cool Gene. Rest in Peace.
The story of Kevin Hines shows that NO, not all die, and guess what? You can realize you want to live,go on and live your life and have purpose; that suicide can refocus you on life and living and giving. No one knows how his story will ultimately play it’s final scene, but let’s hope it is when he’s old and grey…..
Lastly, this serves as a broader reminder that people are hurting and possibly thinking bad things. Can you stop it? maybe not, but you might; most people give certain hints that they are sad, depressed or suicidal. While we cannot bring back the people in the film, lets take their stories and apply them to people in our own life. Maybe we can make a difference.
on October 27th, 2010 at 10:21 am
I watched The Bridge last night. It was moving and disturbing. But I thought showing someone die was not legal? How does one get around that?
Joe Smith on December 29th, 2010 at 1:00 pm
“Kris k. on July 17th, 2009 at 7:37 am Bottom line — somebody had to make this film.”
No, they didn’t. In fact, the more I consider it, the more I believe this was completely unecessary.
Especially after learning that the procedes go to the NIMBY solution of “build a net”.
The whole thing reeks of the mentality of denial, or a NIMBY solution. Basically they’re saying if people can’t jump off the GGB, they won’t kill themselves. That seems to be a woefully ignorant perspective and I strongly suspect the real take is “go ahead and kill yourselves, just don’t do it off of our tourist attraction”.
The director of this film should be thrown off of The Bridge. Even if all profits were donated to charity, the director is still profiting for having it on his resume and promoting his role as director. What a scumbag.