Watching The Bridge is about as close to suicide as you can get without vaulting the guardrail of the San Francisco Bay Bridge yourself. That is to say: it’s a very unusual and thought-provoking film. I found myself awake at 4am the morning after screening it, wrestling with the host of disturbing images and questions raised by this film.
Synopsis: Staking out the Bay Bridge for a full year with nearly $100,000 in extremely long lenses, Eric Steel (who more recently was co-producer on Julia and Julia) and a team of camera operators hired off Craigslist films people walking across the bridge knowing that an average of two per month will choose to end their lives by jumping from the bridge. Sure enough, they manage to record quite a few of the 24 people who died in 2004. What makes the film interesting beyond the morbid curiosity of watching someone jump is that they followed up with friends and relatives of the jumpers, to find out why they did it.
Story Structure: The main character in this film is, of course, the San Francisco Bay Bridge. It’s presence is always felt from the stunning opening sequence which is timelapse of rushing fog through which we catch momentary glimpses of the bridge, until the fog melts away to reveal the bridge in all it’s majesty. After that it’s a non-linear voyage into the stories of people who both successfully and unsuccessfully tried to end their lives by leaping from the bridge. The structure used is basically this: Interviews with relatives provide voiceover to b-roll of bridge, including shot of person who is standing on bridge alone, looking out over the edge. The person then climbs over the railing, and either immediately vaults to their death, or stands on the precipice before doing so. Splash. Cut to another story. The tension comes from showing people who look like they might jump, and you wonder: which one of them is going to do it? There’s one particular guy, Gene, who we keep seeing many times throughout the film. It’s as if he’s having a really hard time deciding whether to jump. We hear from tons of his relatives all through the film, and the film’s climax seems to be leading up to his decision whether to jump or not. I won’t spoil it for you.
Tension builds from the opening of the film, in which we see someone jump, setting up what you’re going to see more of. Then it makes you wait, building the suspense, while we catch up with stories of some of the people from point of view of relatives.
Cinematography: I think I would have been ready to jump off the bridge myself after about a week of what must have been never-ending tedious camera operation. Can you imagine scanning the length of the Bay Bridge all fucking day long looking for people who might jump, then being ready, in an instant, to track them and keep them in the frame? That’s dedication.
The timelapse sequence and b-roll of the bridge itself are absolutely stunning, and involve the use of extremely long lenses which compress everything (such as wires) mercilessly. There are wonderful visual methaphors everywhere: pelicans soaring and clouds billowing (symbolic of freedom – something the suicidal people perhaps long in choosing to end their lives); massive and solid columns soaring into the clouds (symbolic of strength and stability – something the jumpers lack); inclusion of “emergency exit” sign in some stills, etc. Still photos are used with slow zooms into the faces. One particularly memorable timelapse is of a sailboat tacking frantically under the bridge in rough seas – a perfect metaphor for the lives of the jumpers.
There are a couple of scenes in which we dissolve through a lengthy series of shots to show time passing, which work OK but not extraordinarily well.
Editing: There are some random flash-transitions toward the end of the film that seemed a bit out of place, perhaps because they are not used consistently throughout, and their use didn’t seem particularly intentional.
Music and Sound: There’s a lot of bells, tones, and melancholy instrumentation that weaves a feeling of ominous foreboding well. Occasional happy music is juxtaposed. Music overall is understated in the film, disappearing into the background, until late in the film when we hear the first vocal track, “Since I lost you.” I think it could have been a better film with more carefully selected music of this kind. I’m guessing there was a fair bit of sound effects work on this film, because obviously the many sequences with people walking across bridge were not audio recorded in sync with the visuals due to the extreme distance of camera from subject.
I couldn’t wait to watch the extras after screening this film, because a film of this kind raises many questions. Why did Steel want to make it? How did he get permission from participants? Some of these questions are revealed, and others are not. In doing a bit of research, I learned that Steel wasn’t entirely forthcoming about the subject of the film when he applied for the permits to make it – he said it was a film about the bridge, rather than about suicide. And some reports suggest he also did not reveal to family members that their voiceover would be used with actual footage of their loved one jumping. I would have liked to have heard him be more forthcoming about those questions and his thought process.