If ever a film tested the ethics of documentary filmmaking, The Bridge comes dangerously close to crossing the line of decency.

Which isn't to say Eric Steele's chronicle of Golden Gate Bridge suicides ("the most popular place to commit suicide") doesn't strive for taste and somber contemplation. There's plenty of poetic footage of the bridge — swallowed by great blankets of fog or gloriously stationed by an endlessly azure sky — and an appropriately solemnly soundtrack, but the overall effect of the film is akin to paging through a coffee table book of suicides rather than a true investigation.

Inspired by a New Yorker article called "Jumpers," Steele set up a series of cameras around the famous bridge and spent 2004 capturing thousands of hours of footage ... along with its 24 suicides (and several dozen attempts). The filmmaker then sought out the friends and family of several victims, in an attempt to better understand what drove them to end their lives in such a spectacular fashion. In particular, Steele focuses on Gene Sprague, a wild-haired young man who, in his stylish leather coat, confidently plummeted to his death.

Unfortunately, the film's psychological examination of what drove these poor souls to choose the San Francisco Bay as their final resting place is woefully inadequate. Steele never establishes much of a connection with the victims or the people they left behind. Instead, the interviews offer only superficial sketches of schizophrenia, depression and despair. There are poignant moments of insight and occasionally interesting elements — like the religious brother who can't accept his sister's suicide because it's a mortal sin — but these are fleeting. The film skips from one subject to the next, never getting past the surface of grief and confusion.

The most interesting interview is with a photographer who, while taking pictures of the bridge, encountered a girl about to jump. He describes the struggle to pull himself away from the detached world of his camera lens and actually intervene. It's a fascinating moment that doesn't get the examination it deserves. Instead of following up with the young woman's story, Steele moves on to his next victim, suggesting his instincts may be more ghoulish than the film lets on.

The way the film's cameras stalk random bridge walkers is morally unsettling, teasing us to guess who might be the next to jump. Is it the middle-aged guy in the baseball cap or the teen in the dark hoodie? It's undeniably provocative, watching everyday people calmly climb over the rail to plunge to their deaths. But all the mournful music in the world can't disguise the fact Steele's using their demises to string us from one interview to the next. And so it has to be asked, is this a meaningful treatise on suicide or a well-composed snuff film?

Though Steele's press release assures us that his camera crews immediately phoned the authorities anytime they witnessed suspicious behavior, the final lingering shots of Gene Sprague before he made his head-over-heels dive leaves the audience to wonder which priority came first: the shot or the call?


Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 8, and at 9:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, March 9-10.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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