One of the world's most trafficked and recognizable tourist sights, the Golden Gate Bridge also holds the unenviable title of its single most popular suicide destination. Eric Steel's docu "The Bridge" doesn't so much analyze this phenomenon as capture it -- he set up multiple cameras around the structure throughout 2004, recording nearly all that year's 23 fatal leaps (and sole non-fatal one), then interviewed grieving relatives and friends.

One of the world’s most trafficked and recognizable tourist sights, the Golden Gate Bridge also holds the unenviable title of its single most popular suicide destination. Eric Steel’s docu “The Bridge” doesn’t so much analyze this phenomenon as capture it — he set up multiple cameras around the structure throughout 2004, recording nearly all that year’s 23 fatal leaps (and sole non-fatal one), then interviewed grieving relatives and friends. Compelling result is handled with enough dignified artistry to quell most fears of exploitation. Still, ethical questions remain, to be weighed against the pic’s undeniable curiosity-value appeal to broadcasters and specialized distribs.

Approximately 1,300 people are known to have leapt from the bridge since its 1937 opening; no doubt others have gone unwitnessed, and many jumpers’ bodies are never found, carried out to the Pacific by currents. Virtually all jump from the side facing San Francisco — underlining what one interviewee calls “the false, romantic promise” of the beautiful structure and city itself.

Steel starts out with handsome views of the area and bridge, creating a mythic aura abetted by Alex Heffes’ ethereal score. Glimpses of pedestrians and bicyclists on the Golden Gate’s walkway are wonen in.

Sabine Krayenbuhl’s clever editing almost imperceptibly narrows our focus on the everyday until we find ourselves sticking with a portly man in jogging suit who simply hops over the railing and plunges. The impossibility of predicting with any assurance who might be a suicide risk on the bridge is thus illustrated straightaway.

Some may take exception to the cat-and-mouse suspense the helmer builds in his grim context by teasing auds with views of pedestrians who may or may not prove suicidal. (Helmer noted after the screening that they called Bridge Patrol whenever someone’s conduct began to seem preparatory to a jump, saving several lives. But often such behaviors were absent, or too abrupt, making preventative action impossible.)

Gradually we become acquainted with some of the deceased’s individual stories, told by surviving family members and other intimates. A common thread is mental illness, with many survivors half-resigned to the likelihood of their loved one’s fate.

A recurrent motif throughout the film are glimpses of Gene, a leather-jacketed, longhaired guy who spent 90 minutes walking across and lingering on the bridge before finally making a most dramatic backwards fall. Also haunting are segs detailing the circumstances around bipolar-diagnosed youth Kevin Hines’ jump — one of very few instances in which the person survived the four-second tumble and normally body-shattering impact.

Tales are dramatic; the interviewees poignant, and the images — often following bodies all the way down to the water — are startling and discomfiting.

Yet “The Bridge” is quite beautifully put together, in tone and pacing at times achieving a sort of melancholy poetry. (Only misstep is inclusion of some sorrowful songs by Joni Mitchell, Son Volt and others; in this context, pop sentiments feel trite.)

Feature has already caused local controversy, stirred by the fact that Steel misled authorities about the nature of his project when applying for permits, and did not inform his interviewees that he had actual footage of their loved ones’ last moments until much later. Visibly nervous at a Q&A following one SFIFF screening, first-time director Steel (a former VP at Scott Rudin Prods.) said these liberties were necessary to complete a project whose goal was bringing public attention to mental-health and suicide-prevention issues.

Yet “The Bridge,” which has no on-screen input from mental health professionals or suicide experts, never approaches those issues directly — unlike the material which inspired it, Tad Friend’s 2003 “New Yorker” article “Jumpers.” Nor does it mention the controversial proposed walkway barrier whose advocacy he also cites as a major motivation for the film.

“The Bridge” is undeniably powerful stuff. But whether it’s particularly helpful is less clear.

The Bridge

Production

An Easy There Tiger production. Produced by Eric Steel. Executive producers, Alison Palmer Bourke, Evan Shapiro. Directed by Eric Steel.

Crew

Camera (color, 35mm, DigiBeta-to-35mm), Peter McCandless; editor, Sabine Krayenbuhl; music, Alex Heffes; music supervisors, Christopher Covert, Jim Black; sound (Dolby Digital), Margaret Crimmins, Greg Smith. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 30, 2006. (Also in Tribeca Film Festival.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Kevin Hines, Patrick Hines, Rachel Marker, Tara Harrell, Carolyn Presley, Wally & Mary Manikow, Matt & Jenn Rossi, Rich Waters, Ginny Matthews, Shelley Albar.

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