When I visited San Francisco last year, a friend who lives there told me the fact that the Golden Gate bridge is the number one suicide destination in the world [although you have to keep in mind that other landmarks (Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower) have erected suicide barriers, where the Golden Gate Bridge has not]. We ended up discussing this movie. Then it stayed in the back of my mind until it was brought to my attention by a reader who found it pretty haunting. So let’s find out the shocking truth!
The film opens with fog clearing and revealing the Golden Gate Bridge. We have some “daily life on the bridge” footage, and start focusing on individual people as they walk along. Now, if you’ve rented this movie, you probably know that it includes footage of real suicides, and as the film focuses on individuals, it starts to generate this suspense of “Is HE going to do it? Or is SHE going to do it?” Eventually a guy does it. We need one up front to set the tone, you know. Then we have a long-held shot of the bridge as ominous, vaguely horror-film music plays.
Now we start interviewing witnesses and relatives of the people who jumped from the bridge. These will be jumbled up and extended throughout the film. One guy was windsurfing below when a guy jumped, and he later reflected on being down there having a great time while the jumper was at “the lowest of the low.” We have a mother and sister of a girl who committed suicide. The mother says a doctor said of her daughter who later jumped: “He said ‘Your daughter is a paranoid schizophrenic, and will never recover.’ Well, that’s a terrible thing to tell a mother!” Much attention [and footage] is expended on Gene, this rock-styled guy with long black hair and wearing leather. We hear from his friends that “Gene was just never of this world. He was born an old man.” We find out that he was incessantly saying things like “Just kill me” and talking about suicide, until it got to the point that his friends didn’t think a thing about it. Around now is when we realize that one thing this film is going to deliver is a lot of good, intimate family gossip.
Two parents talk about their son who killed himself [as a daschund is incessantly on the lap of one or other of them], saying he was just always obsessed with suicide and felt like his soul was trapped in his body. They crossed the Golden Gate on a family vacation, and the son suddenly lit up with passion about the bridge, “as if it was calling to him.” They then examine if they were to blame, if they were bad parents. Around now we see another suicide, from a distance, just a long shot of the bridge and then a sudden splash.
Around now you are also starting to realize that all the scathes of bridge footage and close-ups of pedestrians are just a way of pumping the film up to feature-length. The mother and sister mention that their victim, the paranoid schizophrenic, was in a home for 15 years before she jumped. Her brother, interviewed separately, who has a strange, severe military haircut, is intensely religious and refuses to believe his sister jumped—she must have slipped.
We meet a young man, Kevin, who jumped but survived. He said he was afraid of things like that he would gets AIDS when it crawled into his bed like bugs. He says he walked to the bridge and was bawling his eyes out when a German tourist came up to him, oblivious to his crying, and asked him to take her picture. He said then he realized that no one cared, so he jumped. Immediately, he realized he wanted to live, and arranged himself to enter feet first [word to the wise: everyone who has ever survived went into the water feet first]. He was later diagnosed as mentally ill and now takes medication. He says he realizes “I’ll never be normal.” One does start to notice an undertone in his telling that seems somehow proud or like what a badass he is for being SO depressed and surviving the fall.
It goes on. Around now you’re starting to have questions about how all this was filmed. Like—did he catch people killing themselves and then contact the families? Did they try to stop any of the suicides? Some of the suicides are captured from two angles, making it seem especially like some sort of enthralling sporting event. There is a doc on the making of the film on the disc—which I didn’t watch—but a little research reveals the story: Director Eric Steel lied to the Golden Gate Recreation Area authority and told them he was making a documentary “to capture the powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place every day at the Golden Gate Bridge.” He got permission to film every daylight hour of the bridge in 2004, during which he captured 23 of the 24 suicides. Only about seven are shown in the film. Steel claims that they called 911 several times when they could see someone was about to jump, but that many were too sudden. The Bridge authority was pretty pissed about being lied to and tried to stop the film. He sought out the families of suicides he had footage of, and interviewed them without telling them that he had footage of their loved ones dying. He says that “All the family members now, at this point, have seen the film, [and are] glad that they had participated in it.” [He does not mention what the families that declined to appear in the film had to say]. So that’s the story.
The film is pretty good as you’re watching it, and has a somber, hypnotic quality. Yes, there’s a lot of filler, but I suppose it’s better to fill up that empty space with atmosphere, as opposed to anything else. But toward the end and afterward, one begins to see the film’s limitations. For example, all we hear from are relatives and witnesses. If you have so much empty space you need to fill it up with long atmospheric passages, couldn’t you have filled that space with a psychologist giving us some insight into the state of mind of a suicidal person? Couldn’t you have talked to police or the anti-suicide patrols? Couldn’t you cover the controversy over installing an anti-suicide barrier on the bridge? Couldn’t you have talked to people responsible for other suicide destinations about their decision to install a barrier? Couldn’t you have talked to anyone involved with the several suicide instruction websites? Couldn’t you have explored what in particular about the Golden Gate Bridge makes it such a powerful suicide destination? But no, the movie just sticks to inter-family gossip and suicide footage, which is powerful, but in retrospect, much more superficial than it needs to be.
As for the real suicide footage? The mere fact of it didn’t bother me so much. The technique of trying to generate ghoulish suspense by throwing it in with a bunch of other people did. But the thing is: aside from the issues of whether it’s right or wrong to have taken and include that footage at all, what did it really ADD to the film? Not really that much. I asked the person who recommended it the same question and he said: “The jumpers are the draw - I probably wouldn't have watched it without it,” and that seems to be about it: the suicide footage is what gets you to watch the film. Which would be one thing if the film drew you in and then gave you a bunch of insight, but it doesn’t. It’s intriguing while it’s going, but once it’s over, all the things that it could have and should have covered come crashing in, and eventually one’s thoughts turn to what kind of person this Eric Steel might be.
The one thing we know about him for sure is that he is dishonest. He lied to the park authority [article about it] and he lied to the families. Maybe he went back and got their approval later [although the truth is we know very little of what actually happened and everything we know is from his viewpoint]. I think we all know that type of person who is dishonest about something and then after the fact has some justification for why he HAD to do it that way or why he HAD to lie. And since the film had ample time to include something that might have given insight into suicides [and apparently they were sitting beside the bridge filing for a year solid—and during that time it NEVER occurred to them to talk to a psychologist?] the main impression I get [this is pure speculation] is that Steel wanted to make a documentary—ANY documentary—and get it into film festivals and get it sold and get it distributed and get some press. And this seemed like a sure-fire gimmick to do just that.
Perhaps emblematic of all this is the factoid I mentioned at the beginning: Steel goes for the "Ooooh" effect of saying the Golden Gate bridge is the world's number one suicide destination... without bothering to mention that a large part of that may simply be that it has no barricades, whereas other landmarks do.
Is it worth watching? Well, it’s only 90 minutes and it is quite interesting, but keep in mind that you could read an article [like this one, from the New Yorker, that inspired the film] in 20 minutes and get a lot more well-rounded picture of the entire situation—although then you wouldn’t see footage of people killing themselves. And if you see Eric Steel calling on your caller ID… you might just want to let that go to voice mail.
It’s interesting and compelling to watch, but is much more atmosphere than insight.