Director: Eric Steel
Writer: Eric Steel
Cinematographer: Peter McCandless
Studio/Running Time: IFC, 93 mins.
This Eric Steel film opens with a beautiful panoramic view of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, almost completely blanketed by fog.
The liveliness of the Bay area is on magnificent display—tourists walk briskly across the bridge, pausing to take pictures; ships sail underneath; kids play soccer in a nearby park; rowers cut across the bay; a man fishes near the bridge’s base; pelicans light on the water.
Then, three minutes in, a man on the bridge quickly swings one leg over the 4-foot-high railing, then the other. The camera follows most of his deadly plunge until an investigating kiteboarder glides into view. This interplay of the astoundingly beautiful and shockingly morbid continues throughout, with much of the screen time devoted to interviews with family and friends of the two dozen who jumped—and perished—in 2004.
Filming all day with wide-angle and telephoto lenses, Steel and his crew captured all but one of the victims at the place more people have chosen to end their lives than anywhere else in the world. Misleading authorities (in obtaining permits) and family members (by not disclosing the existence of their footage), the filmmakers generated plenty of controversy. Detractors accused them of exploitation and indifference (although they notified authorities when they noticed clear signs of an attempt and prevented a half-dozen jumps). The finished product, however, presents an affecting, valuable journalistic document on a subject few want to discuss and fewer still understand.
Suicide, depression, mental illness—these are uncomfortable subjects, both foreign and familiar. We all know what it’s like to feel down, yet few understand this type of deep despondency. Even psychologists have a problem differentiating the two; recent studies indicate that depression may be over-diagnosed by 25 percent. But true clinical depression is as different from the blues as a simple cut is from a severed limb. The gap between melancholy and suicidal despair is a chasm that requires a chemical imbalance to cross. I know. I’ve crossed that line.
Being myself the survivor of a serious suicide attempt, watching The Bridge was particularly potent—hearing the muddle of emotions in those left behind, catching glimpses of my former self in the jumpers, knowing that (with the exception of survivor Kevin Hines) none would get the second chance I did.
Nonetheless, I watched the film with a certain detachment. My attempt seems so long ago, and—more importantly—the person I was then seems so alien. This is partly due to profound personal changes that have occurred since those darkest days, and partly a problem inherent in the disease. When you’re healthy, it’s difficult to relate, intellectually or emotionally, to your depressed self. That period seems filled with overwrought, adolescent angst. But when you’re in the midst of a major depressive episode, you see little else. Everywhere you look, you see validation. This is especially true when you look to the past. All you find is support for the contention that you’ve always been like this and always will be.
The Bridge’s director, having watched the World Trade Center collapse from his office window, imagines the bridge jumpers as people escaping their own inferno. The father of jumper Philip Manikow feels similarly. “[Philip] thought his body was a prison,” he recounts. “He knew he was loved, he knew he had everything, could do anything. And yet he felt trapped. … It’s like any pain. When it becomes unbearable, you’ll do anything. It’s like physical cancer. [But] if you have cancer of the mind, nobody knows what you’re going through.”
Seeing the pain of those left behind was the most difficult part of watching The Bridge. Suicide is a selfish act. I knew this but felt it was equally selfish of others to want me to stay trapped just to spare them. And I couldn’t imagine I mattered that much. In that distorted state, I thought family and friends would get over my death the same way one gets over a pet’s death. I learned that the range of emotions (from guilt to anger) forced on them is real and that the hurt is deep. Anybody who’s truly seen that can’t help but want to rewind time and figure out a different solution.
Philip, as remembered by his parents, is the jumper I relate to most. “Everything just disillusioned him,” his mom explains. “He had this idealistic view of things, and this perception of how everything should be. And then when it didn’t meet up to his expectations—after a while, it was like, ‘What’s the point?’”
It’s a warped view, to be sure. The Bridge highlights this distortion as friends describe some jumpers as lovable and vibrant while their suicide notes say things like “I am fat, ugly … tired” and “I hate me! I am a loser!”
Halfway through the film, someone asks the question that’s implicit throughout: “What goes through people’s minds while they’re standing on the ledge?” One family was taking pictures when they heard 45-year-old Lisa Smith laugh, turned and saw her smile and then jump. Like Lisa’s, my would-be final moments were relatively unemotional. Since I’d already made the decision, relief was the predominant feeling. I felt confident that God would greet me with love and healing, and if there was no God, I’d meet nothingness. Either way, the suffering would be over.
The Bridge features a woman who ?ew from Houston for a jump that was thwarted by passers-by. She describes the process many go through in deciding how to end their lives, comparing it to the search for a college, during which you weigh the pros and cons. Like her, I did my research. I wanted it to be final.
For reasons I don’t understand, my plan failed where it should have succeeded, putting me in the hospital with no physical damage. And my hospitalization was eye opening. Suffering had a new face. While interacting with my NFL roommate, just-out-of-college drug addicts and even those (literally) barely breathing, I gained new perspective that gave professional treatment a window to operate.
Ultimately, the shock of my attempt and survival, coupled with help from professionals and new spiritual purpose, led me to healing that has miraculously kept me from anything remotely resembling the distorted despair of those days. In Unholy Ghost, writer Lesley Dorman echoes my new reality: “I marvel at my ability to move in and out of ordinary feelings like sadness and disappointment and worry. I continue to be stunned by the purity of theses feelings, by the beauty of their rightful proportions to actual life events. … I consider my ability to participate at last in the everyday a gift.”