April 13, 2010

"The Bridge" & "United 93" TriBeCa Film Reviews


By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

"The Bridge." Here is some helpful upfront information on this transfixing, oddly beautiful documentary having its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is the first film of producer-director Eric Steel, and its credited source is a 2003 New Yorker article, "Jumpers," on why more people commit suicide from The Golden Gate Bridge than any other location on the planet.

Steel positioned camera crews with telephoto lenses on both land-based sides of the Bridge all day long for all 365 days of 2004. Incredibly, he was given permission by the Gate authority officials and security to shoot every day, by lying that he was filming a documentary on national landmarks. Steel captured 23 of the 24 suicides that took place that year, then crossed the country during 2005 and interviewed family and friends of the victims who would go on-camera. He has focused his 93-minute film primariy on six of the suicides, plus one young survivor of a suicide leap off the Bridge in 2000, who was pulled from the water and thus becomes the one jumper who can speak directly of his near-death experience.

As you would expect, the Golden Gate authorities are furious with Steel's deception and hugely embarrassed that they had greenlighted camera crews to film the Bridge from every possible angle, not just for a day but for an entire year. (Imagine a filmmaker trying to do the same thing around any major bridge into New York City.) Even before its release, the film has prompted the start of funding suicide barriers which will probably be erected on the walkways across the Bridge in 2006. It takes only seconds for any person to climb over the walkway railing and jump into the swift currents--an act that over twelve hundred men and women have accomplished since the Bridge's completion in 1937. Maybe the most surprising fact is that no one has attempted to film a documentary on this phenomenon before. And this is why "The Bridge" is not only among the most powerful films being shown at this year's Festival, but emerges a far more riveting and absorbing death trip than "United 93," which was also premiered at the Tribeca Festival and is moving onto multiplex screens nationwide.

"The Bridge" is a most unusual, almost breathless documentary to watch unfold. It's assembled with extraordinary artistry, slowly intercutting long moments of contemplation by the victims with close and detailed and, yes, painful insights and recollections by parents, siblings, lovers and friends. All of this is surrounded by dozens of incredible views of the Bridge from dawn to sunset, seen in everything from crystaline blue to shrouded and ominous fog. Steel shoots in vivid, widescreen color that sets these tiny, human portraits of suffering and despair in vistas of almost supernatural beauty and eloquent engineering. You can't take your eyes off the screen because it's so gorgeous and so heartbreaking at the same moment.


In contrast, "United 93" comes in a distant second. It's a grim, realistic reenactment of the hijacking of the fourth plane of 9/11, retaken by courageous passengers and crashlanded before reaching its planned target of the White House. The director, Paul Greengrass, proved in the docudrama "Bloody Sunday" and the thriller-diller "Bourne Supremacy" that he's a master at escalating terror into barely managed chaos. A lot of "United 93" feels like a documentary because it's acted in part by the actual flight controllers and ground personnel that tracked the plane's fatal journey. The problem with "United 93"--its crucial difference from "The Bridge"--is that none of the passengers, pilots, flight attendants, air traffic controllers or the four terrorists are ever any more than brief snapshots. There isn't a fully developed character in the air or on the ground, and as a result we're pulled in by the awful progression of events and not by the participants.

While Greengrass uses subtitles to translate the terrorists' lines, he uses them on only a very small amount of what they're saying, and not at all in the final terrifying minutes when the four killers are shouting almost continuously as they're rushed and overpowered by the passengers. This is a big mistake. With the shaking plane and camera and the furious editing pace, it's nearly impossible to clearly understand what's taking place in the pilot's compartment, aisles and cabin of the doomed airliner.

In "The Bridge" the portrait of each suicide becomes more clear and moving as the documentary progresses, cross-cutting and revisiting each of the tragic souls in their lonely, last vigil over the waters. There are common themes at work here--loneliness, alienation, drugs and alcohol, paranoia, bi-polar disorders, vast amounts of depression. Eric Steel builds his documentary with flawless intelligence and order, showing how one man's despair reflects another woman's desperation. "The Bridge" bears silent witness to all this misery, glistening in ever-changing hues and rainbows and clouds of smoke. It may be the prettiest ode to death
you'll ever see.


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