The Bridge is a highly skillful film that hardly anyone has seen. That's not only because its topic is suicide, but because director Eric Steel actually shot people jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge - the single highest suicide location in the world - capturing most of the 24 deaths there in 2004. Was this morally justifiable?

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, November 19, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Suicide Trip: Filming Death at the Golden Gate

Golden Gate BridgeThe Bridge is a highly skillful film that hardly anyone has seen. That's not only because its topic is suicide, but because director Eric Steel actually shot people jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge - the single highest suicide location in the world - capturing most of the 24 deaths there in 2004.

I read a striking review of the film late in 2006 in the New York Times, by Stephen Holden: "The Bridge juxtaposes breathtaking scenes of the Golden Gate and its environs with the harrowing personal stories of family members and friends of those who jumped. Because their testimony is remarkably free of religious cant and of cozy New Age bromides, this is one of the most moving and brutally honest films about suicide ever made." But the film was nowhere to be seen in New York, no doubt because of its morally ambiguous proposition that it is better to know about something than not, no matter how the knowledge is obtained.

I finally saw the film last week on the IFC cable movie channel. Since I missed the introduction, it took me a while to rerealize (having forgotten the review) that I was watching people mount the Bridge's railing and either contemplating the jump, or immediately leaping over the side. Watching someone die is a stunning experience, one that requires you to come to grips with a host of your own feelings. And this film is a series of such events.

As I explained to someone this past weekend, there are suicide patrols driving along the Bridge (which seem to do precious little good). The filmmakers set up their camera every day in 2004 to be able to capture the Bayside view of the Bridge (apparently most people are afraid to jump towards the wilder oceanside), where they couldn't move to help someone if they wanted to.

Of course, even when people hovered a long time before leaping, or were visibly distressed looking over the edge, people on the Bridge rarely stopped to help them. In one remarkable scene (thank God for it, since it offers all of us some moral redemption), a man reached over the railing to pull a small woman back to safety by the collar of her heavy coat.

But here's the rub - this man (who himself had been photographing the woman before he finally came to his senses) was tremendously disturbed by the experience. He turned her over to the Bridge patrol, but endlessly wondered in one of the interviews why he waited so long and how he would have felt if she had leaped, whether he should have done more like contacting her afterwards, whether she would simply return another time to complete the job.

The film can only talk, after all, to friends and relations (and one remarkable survivor, who actually decided he wanted to live after he jumped). In many cases they had come to a sort of peace. Two parents discussed their son's death resignedly. A composed older woman recognized that her grandson - like her daughter, his mother - had felt suicidal his entire life: "He thought his body was a prison . . . and that was the only way he could get free." She only required of the young man that he call her before he killed himself.

The film is not about depression. Ironically, there is one elaborate discussion of helping, therapy, and antidepressants. A surviving female friend of a jumper - herself an emotionally vulnerable woman living alone in San Francisco - was highly distraught over the possibility that the man was driven finally to kill himself by being kept awake by the antidepressants she gave him (they hadn't worked for her either). I don't believe this was the case. At the same time, as this case makes clear, antidepressants are not the solution for all self-destructive urges.

Since the film offers the opportunity for so many reflections about the suicides - from those who knew them, about the events leading up to their deaths, the reactions of those around them when they leaped - it provides as much raw data about the phenomenon as can ever be revealed in one piece - and as much as any viewer can bear.