The Bridge

Steel, Eric

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Jones, Therese
  • Date of entry: Jan-19-2009
  • Last revised: Jan-16-2009


After reading Tad Friend's article, "Jumpers: The Fatal Grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge" in an October 2003 issue of The New Yorker, filmmaker Eric Steel became so fascinated by the mystery of the final, dark moments of a human being who makes the long journey across the bridge to his or her death that he finagled $100,000 worth of equipment and moved from New York to San Francisco.  At 5:00 AM on a rainy New Year's Day in 2004, Steel and his ragtag crew set up their cameras, beginning a strange year-long vigil.  Training telephoto lenses on the mid-span of the bridge, they peered intently from dawn to dusk, watching for "suspicious behavior" or a "sense of despair" among the crowds passing back and forth.  During that year of filming, twenty-two people ended their lives, some caught on tape and some not; however, six attempts were thwarted by the film crew who became quite adept at indentifying potential victims and alerting the Bridge Patrol. 

Photographed from multiple perspectives, at all times of day, and in all kinds of weather, the Golden Gate Bridge is the main character of this documentary film.  It is formidable; it is magnificent; it is ominous; it is alluring.  According to the film:  "More people have chosen to end their lives [here] than anywhere else in the world."  The sublime images not only capture the many facets and features of the structure, but they also illustrate the emotions and represent the psychology of the other narratives intertwined in the film:  the stories of seven individuals who jumped from the bridge during the course of that year.

There is thirty-four year-old Gene, a haunting figure dressed all in black whose story begins and ends the documentary.  Like the film crew, we watch him prowl the bridge day after day, his long dark hair whipping in the wind until he makes that final leap, a dramatic backward dive.  There is forty-four year-old Lisa, who has suffered throughout her adult life with schizophrenia and who disappears off the bridge on Easter Sunday afternoon.  And there is twenty-two year-old Philip whose parents relate the history of their son's struggle with mental illness.

In addition to using footage of the bridge being obscured by fog as an evocative image of the progressive suffocation of self, the filmmaker employs long shots of the island of Alcatraz to symbolize the prison of mental illness.  Indeed, Philip's father describes his son's leap from the bridge as a release, "the only way he could get free."


Pieter Brueghel's painting, The Fall of Icarus, is consciously replicated in the initial segment of the documentary film, The Bridge (see annotation of W. H. Auden's poem, "Musèe des Beaux Arts"). The opening images are beautiful and banal: contented tourists and carefree locals walking, running, driving over the glorious span of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Suddenly, a middle-aged man sporting a baseball cap breaks from the throng--climbs casually over the four-foot railing and steps blithely into the void.  The single splash is witnessed by one of the wind surfers below who wryly but sadly observes:  "It happens all the time." 

Since the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1937, an estimated thirteen hundred people have leapt to their deaths.  Only twenty-six people, including Kevin Hines who is featured in the film, have survived the four-second, two hundred twenty-foot, seventy-five mile per hour plunge.  In tandem with the long history of suicidal leaps from the bridge has been the long-standing debate about what, if anything, should be done to prevent them.  Historically, the arguments have pitted architectural purists and civil libertarians against suicide prevention experts and family members.  Media coverage of the issue intensified with a seven-part series by the San Francisco Chronicle in late 2005 as well as the release of the documentary in 2006, and advocates for some kind of barrier became more energized.  For the eighth time since the bridge opened, the district's directors considered installing a deterrent, and in October 2008, they voted decisively to construct a stainless steel net which will be placed twenty feet below the deck of the bridge.

There are moments when The Bridge feels like a voyeuristic snuff film, raising concerns about the motives and the methods of such a project.  And there are moments when it feels like an unflinching expose, documenting the suffering of individuals diagnosed with mental illness who have contemplated, discussed and planned their own ends, despite the love and support of family and friends.  Ultimately, The Bridge is a subtle and complex meditation on suicide, foregrounding the ethical issue of individual rights and collective responsibilities.  There is very little moralizing or sermonizing in the film, but there is a subtle and powerful message about our responsibility for one another as well as a vivid and profound message about art and arts advocacy. 


Behind the scenes features include interviews with the director and producer of the film, Eric Steel, and several members of the camera crew.  In addition, there is a message from survivor, Kevin Hines, for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 

Primary Source

Koch Lorber Home Video (DVD)