In describing (and often defending) his Golden Gate suicide jumper documentary The Bridge, director Eric Steel invokes a painting by the Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder entitled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus.” Steel’s read of the painting is included in the film’s plot description (“People suffer largely unnoticed while the rest of the world goes about its business”) and, while watching The Bridge, you half-expect his naïvely self-serious observation to be complemented with the old Phil Collins spiel about how “we still got a long, long way to go.” No dice as far as that goes. Though The Bridge does have its fair share of mournful pop-music interludes, it primarily depends on Alex Heffes’s liberal-guilt tinkle of a score to counterpoint its DV glamour shots of the famed San Francisco crossing where a good number of people take their lives every year.
Under misleading cover, Steel set up two cameras near the Golden Gate during every daylight hour of 2004: one, a static master shot of the bridge’s entire span; the other, a mobile unit with telephoto lens that tracked potential suicide jumpers. Any suspicious behavior, Steel maintains, was immediately reported to the Bridge authorities, though there is evidence enough within the film that ethics were smudged along the way. This is particularly true in the case of jumper Gene Sprague (looking, from Steel’s distanced vantage point, like a leather-bar angel of death), whose head-over-heels plunge into a watery grave is teased throughout The Bridge and then shown, contrary to the other captured jumps, from two distinct, almost too-well photographed perspectives on opposite shorelines.
Steel occasionally cops to the moral questions raised by his methods, specifically in a fascinating, though crudely integrated interview with an amateur photographer who, as something of an emotionally grounding defense mechanism, took pictures of a potential jumper before pulling her to safety. Certainly there’s no denying the effectiveness of some of the material here, but The Bridge never earns its parallel to Brueghel’s landscape (one wonders what Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films frequently referenced and/or incorporated the Flemish maestro’s work, might have done with this material), and certain stylistic affectations, particularly the unintentionally comical amplification of the subjects’ death splashes, only strengthen the sense that something is inherently rotten at the movie’s core.