The Ethics of Intervention: Suicide & Eric Steel’s “The Bridge”

Based on Tad Friend’s 2003 New Yorker piece “Jumpers,” Eric Steel’s disturbing documentary follows one year in the life of the mythical Golden Gate Bridge.  Over the course of 2004, Steel and his team recorded over 10,000 hours of footage, capturing 23 of the year’s 24 tragic suicides.

Since the bridge’s opening in 1937, an estimated 1,700 people have committed suicide by hurling themselves 245 feet into the frigid San Francisco Bay below.  On average, every 2 weeks another person jumps.

What makes the Golden Gate Bridge such an attractive place to commit suicide?  As Friend observes, “the Golden Gate is unrivaled as a symbol: it is a threshold that presides over the end of the continent and a gangway to the void beyond.”  For many, this marvel of construction stands as a gateway to the golden west: Silicon Valley, Tinsel Town, and all the glamor and shimmering possibility of success.  Its mighty stature is a testament to the grand things man can accomplish.  But for others, the Golden Gate is a bitter reminder of failure.

golden gate bridge

Besides its morbid mystique, many choose the Golden Gate Bridge for practical reasons: a 98% fatality rate pretty much ensures you’ll perish if you jump.  Other forms of suicide (overdosing, shooting yourself, hanging) are less likely to be successful.  Plus if you choose to make the fatal plunge, you eliminate the possibility that a loved one will find you and, the idea goes, spare them (some) trauma.  Most who jump die on impact; those unlucky enough to survive hitting water at 75 miles per hour drown or die of hypothermia.  

Reactions to The Bridge can best be described as divisive.  Critic Stephen Holden of the New York Times called the documentary “one of the most moving and brutally honest films about suicide,” while critic Andrew Culver of The Guardian gave it a harsher review, only awarding it 1 of 5 stars and claiming “it could be the most morally loathsome film ever made.”

So is The Bridge tactlessly morbid or remarkably sensitive?  discomforting or viscerally fascinating? A tastelessly exploitative snuff film or a profoundly empathetic look into a topic that is traditionally taboo?

Like Culver and many other critics, in some ways, I am appalled by Steel’s project.  While making the film, Steel hid his intentions from both the families of the deceased and bridge authorities.  Rather than be forthcoming about the real intentions of his undertaking, he told the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that he hoped to “capture the powerful, spectacular intersection of monument and nature that takes place everyday at the Golden Gate Bridge.”  More despicable was his deception of the victims’ families.  While interviewing, he never made it known that he had footage of their loved ones jumping to their doom.  Steel packages desperate people at their most hopeless final moments into a film for a profit, which many have condemned as ruthlessly self-seeking and insensitive.  

On a human level, I’m even more troubled by the thought that Steel and his crew could have done something to stop the suicides but chose not to.  Were they watching people jump in real time?  Or did they pose cameras on the bridge 24 hours a day and only see the gruesome deaths after the fact when it was too late to stop them?  I’m not entirely sure of Steel’s methods but I do find the possibility that people were allowed to die for the purposes of spectacle and entertainment deeply disturbing.  

As such, The Bridge raises interesting questions about the ethics of intervention: when do filmmakers have a moral obligation to intervene-rather than record- preventable events?  when do ordinary people?  

It’s hard to believe that a person could witness another in danger and do nothing but it happens all the time.  In a controversial cover storyThe New York Post featured a haunting picture of a man about to be hit by an oncoming subway train.  The man, Ki Suk Han, 58 year old father of one, had been arguing with street vendor, Naeem Davis, 30, when the altercation exploded into physical violence and Davis pushed him off the platform.  Freelance photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, captured Han’s chilling final moments for the The New York Post, who featured the photo under the tasteless headline “Doomed.”

doomed

Since its publication, the photo has ignited controversy.  Why had Abbasi chosen to immortalize such a horrific incident instead of take action to stop it?  Journalists and the public alike have expressed outrage that Abbasi chose to snap a picture instead of save Han from such a gruesome end.  But, in my opinion, Abbasi isn’t the only one who deserves opprobrium.  Eighteen other people witnessed the devastating event.  These panicked bystanders watched as Han struggled for 60- some speculate up to 90- seconds to drag himself back onto the platform.  Not a single person tried to pull him to safety.  

Like Abbasi, the mercilessly determined photojournalist obsessed with getting his story, Steel exploits the dreadful and macabre for his own gain.  And like the cowardly onlookers who do nothing to rescue a poor man from avoidable demise, bystanders in The Bridge often walk past the anguished and distraught without a second look.  At several points in the film, a troubled spirit walks along the bridge clearly contemplating whether to jump and no one stops.  Giddy tourists with cameras and visors simply stroll past, too concerned with capturing the splendor of the bay against the Golden Gate to notice another person unraveling before their eyes.  Kevin Helms, one of the mere 26 people to have survived the jump, confesses that as he pondered taking his own life, he struck a deal with himself: if one-just one- person stopped to ask him what was wrong, he wouldn’t jump.  No one did.  The only person to approach him as he paced back and forth sobbing was a German tourist.  “Will you take my picture?” she asked, completely oblivious to the fact that he was upset.  

More than just explore suicide, The Bridge meditates on the troubling ways we’ve lost our humanity.  In an increasingly alienated, desensitized culture, we find ourselves less and less unsettled by the agony of others.  If we don’t amuse ourselves with the humiliation of celebrities in tabloids or of hopefuls on reality T.V., we’re alarmingly indifferent to other people’s suffering.  Like movie goers who voyueristically glimpse the triumphs and torments of characters on screen but feel relieved to leave the whole experience in the theater, in real life, we often prefer to witness the drama of our fellow human beings but not interfere.  

The photographer/filmmaker is a powerful metaphor for the detached bystander.  Rather than participate directly in the action he observes, he simply documents it.  Something about recording with a camera estranges him from the tragedies he witnesses.  After saving a young woman from hurling herself off the bridge, a photographer explains why it took him so long to act: “I started taking pictures of her on the ledge and I realized that this girl was about to jump. But when I was behind a camera, it was almost as if it wasn’t real cause I was looking through the lens. I guess I was waiting for her to jump because I thought there was nothing I could do.”  Later, he compares himself to a National Geographic photographer filming a tiger: the tiger may have been running toward him, but he was so excited at the prospect of getting footage that he forgot in a couple of seconds that tiger would pounce.

What redeems The Bridge from Steel’s deplorable methods is this underlying plea for action. It may be hard to comprehend the anguish and despair of someone at the nadir of their life; in many ways, another person’s psyche is like the Golden Gate, mysterious and shrouded in fog.  But should we suspect another is afflicted with terrible self-loathing, tormented with sorrow and pain, we should have the humanity and compassion to stop and utter those three simple, yet life-altering, words: are you ok?

Death & Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

robert frost

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

By Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

Have been beginning my mornings by reading a poem from The 100 Best Poems of All Time, a lovely collection of classics my grandmother gave me years ago. Today, read Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Never been a big lover of Frost: his poems are too monosyllabic, too simple; I much prefer the lyricism of a Plath or Fitzgerald. But just so I don’t spent hours debating which poem to read, I turn to a random page and let the fates decide; today, I landed on page 129, Robert Frost’s classic. I had read this poem once before with a student but my memory was muddled. Reading it again today, I felt the familiar frustration of encountering Frost: the poem seems like the retelling of a man’s brief stop in the woods, nothing more. I feel the same way reading Hemingway. Though I can appreciate the groundbreaking cultural significance of Hemingway’s lean, athletic style, I myself am a traditionalist: a prefer writing to be poetic, lavish, adorned.

But in a way, simplicity is genius: though a piece by Hemingway or Frost may seem forthright and straight-forward, their simplicity usually conceals a far more complex machinery operating underneath. Take Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” as an example. Reading it a couple of minutes ago, the poem seemed like an uncomplicated story about a man pausing to admire the beauty of a dark wood; however, upon closer examination, deeper themes revealed themselves.

If we investigate the rather plain title, we notice that the poem’s name immediately situates us in time and place: in the woods on a snowy evening. Taken alone, this doesn’t seem noteworthy; however, if we look closer, we’ll notice Frost doesn’t set his poem on any evening but a “snowy” one. Snow, and more generally the bleakness of a cold winter, universally represents death just as spring points to rejuvenation and renewal.

Though Frost’s poem presents itself as an accessible series of events-a man who craves to escape from the responsibilities of his ordinary life finds peace in a nearby wood-some scholars have theorized this poem carries a more sinister meaning and that the speaker is actually contemplating suicide and meditating on the nature of death. Such a reading finds support in several instances of the text: in the last stanza, for example, the speaker seems hypnotized by the enchanting forest, calling the woods “lovely, dark and deep” (Frost 13). The woods-like death- are made “lovely” by the very fact that they’re “dark” and “deep”, or removed from the commotion of civilization. Throughout the poem, our speaker longs for the quiet peace only death can offer, using soft, lulling words like “easy” and “downy” to describe the sounds of the restful wood beyond the lake.

However in the next line, the contrasting conjunction “but” indicates his affair with the snowy night is only temporary. No matter how enticing it may be to give up and surrender to the tranquility of death, the speaker realizes he has “promises to keep” and “miles to go” before he can metaphorically slumber. The repetition of “and miles” in the final two lines hints at the distance he still has to travel before he can meet death. Such an ending suggests our speaker has had an epiphany of sorts: though life can be disappointing, our speaker realizes the escapism embodied by suicide is ultimately irresponsible.