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Review of The Bridge

Documentary about suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge sheds little light on the brute facts of suffering and mental illness—facts which perhaps cannot be conveyed to others (on film or otherwise), and are inherently private.

Action is transitory—a step, a blow, / The motion of a muscle—this way or that—
’Tis done, and in the after vacancy / We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed:
Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark, / And shares the nature of infinity.
…Our good governors / Hedge in the life of every pest and plague
That bears the shape of man; and for what purpose, / But to protect themselves from extirpation?—
This flimsy barrier you have overleaped.

William Wordsworth, The Borderers, Act 3 (1842)

The Bridge (2006)

The Bridge is a documentary about the extraordinary number of jumping suicides at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, following up a 2003 New Yorker article. The Bridge is not exactly a good movie; I would say that you have seen most of what it has to offer in the first half-hour, and it is not educational, nor is it as horrifying as The Act of Killing. But it is a unique one.

The central premise is that it breaks taboos by documenting, using camera surveillance, 23⁄24 of the 2004 suicides on the bridge (after stopping 6), as well as the bridge & park area—and showing the jumps. The format of the documentary is to cut between this (often fairly blurry) long-range telephone or wide-lenses camera footage, and interviews with the friends or relatives of the jumpers (in the ‘hidden interviewer’ style); and with one surviving jumper, Kevin Hines.

Almost completely excluded from the documentary is any discussion of why so many suicides are allowed to happen at the Golden Gate Bridge, or why the SF city government is unable to add in ordinary suicide barriers of the sort which have eliminated impulsive suicides1 at many other bridges (eg. Sunshine Skyway Bridge), or how it would take another 20 years and >$400m dollars (possibly exceeding the original cost of building the bridge itself) to put up any.

The footage reveals little, as the repeated footage of falls reveals just one thing: all jumpers look the same. Like a stone, they plummet downwards at 9.8 m⁄s2 for 4 seconds, still approaching (~130 km/h?) terminal velocity (~200 km/h), before hitting the water with a big splash. And that’s that. (Once one sees it, one can hardly understand what the fuss over the taboo footage is.)

The interviews cover 3–4 jumpers, who seem fairly representative: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and possible borderline. The interviews themselves seem to follow predictable beats, describing the gradually-worsening mental problems, the fatal day, and their inarticulate grief.

One woman with schizophrenia (who has lost her teeth to the medicine & resulting Coca-Cola addiction) quietly eats a sandwich before going to the bridge; another takes a bus from out of town; another has waited for his mother to die before he can kill himself; another is chatting on his phone before he spontaneously clambers over the ledge and jumps; and one melodramatically stalks the bridge back and forth for an hour with his hair blowing in the wind (threaded throughout The Bridge) before sitting on the ledge and casually leaning back.

Perhaps most striking is the surviving bipolar jumper, Kevin Hines; as a teenager deep in the grips of psychosis and paranoia and sleep deprivation (triggering the bipolar psychosis), convinced he must kill himself due to a mysterious ‘AIDS infection’, he skips highschool to go to the bridge in 2000, but is unable to jump for 40 minutes, crying, until a German tourist (of course) asks him—to take a photo of her with her camera. He politely obliges, and after she leaves, jumps.

The only jumper able to describe the jump, he says his instant reaction was to realize that he wanted to live after all, and that all of his problems and mistakes were soluble—aside from the mistake of having jumped.2

The interviewee who grasps this striking disconnect best, I think, is one of the first witnesses interviewed, for a female jumper. He was merely out on the Bay with his friends, windsurfing in the water by the bridge, exhilarated on a bright beautiful day, with nary a cloud in the sky or his mind.

It was, he says, one of the best days of his life; while, unknown to him 80 meters above, it was the worst day of hers.

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just
walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy
life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Bruegel’s “Icarus”, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The constant question is why?

To its credit, The Bridge does not try to force a dishonest answer, or end on some upbeat Hallmark note. The interviewees generally cannot offer anything more compelling than bromides or saying the jumpers were in pain, stewing in their muteness and the palpable inadequacy of their explanations. And the histories make clear that there is nothing that unites their life-stories, beyond the common ending on a bridge which is unusually easy to walk to and jump off, with a short railing. There’s nothing to it, but a leisurely stroll to the bridge, and then a hop, skip, and jump.

The only lesson I learn from The Bridge is that there is no lesson.

Why do they fall?

Because you fall if you jump off a bridge—that is all.

  1. Discussed in the New Yorker article, but I noticed an interesting reflection of that in Wikipedia, which provides suicides by the spot in the bridge up to October 2005: suicides are concentrated at the obvious middle, and the easy-to-walk-to part first third of the ‘inside’ pedestrian walkway, but then almost disappear if one has to cross the street or walk past the middle. As the view is gorgeous in both directions, you’d think that more people would want to jump from anywhere on the ‘outside’—but that would be too much work.↩︎

  2. How did he survive that mistake? By making the best of a bad situation, to say the least

    He adopted a ‘lifeguard entry’ position to go in feet-first, which minimized the initial damage; and then, curiously enough, appears to have survived drowning/hypothermia thanks to a seal pushing him up. (The water may not look cold, but even on a nice SF day, the water flowing from the Pacific north current is shockingly cold.)

    He had serious injuries to his spine & bones, and continued difficulties managing his bipolar disorder, but has survived to this day.↩︎