Death and the Documentary

Death of a President and The Bridge.

Hospital press conference in Death of a President

The last thing you’d expect from Death of a President (Newmarket), Gabriel Range’s controversial mock documentary about the imagined assassination of George Bush, is that it would be politically noncommittal and dull. But that’s exactly the problem with this 90-minute piece of cinematic trompe l’oeil. The thing looks for all the world like a classic Frontline documentary on PBS, complete with the boilerplate montages of news footage and the talking heads solemnly opining in their book-lined offices. (There are a few glitches in the verisimilitude, however: How hard can it be to mock up the font of a New York Times headline?)

Set in 2008, the film purports to look back at the 2007 shooting of the president during an economic conference in Chicago. Footage of an actual talk he gave in that city is intercut with fake snippets from news shows and hotel security cameras. A few possible suspects—an anarchist protestor, a Muslim immigrant, a depressed veteran of the Iraq war—are introduced early on, police-thriller style. But just as the ducks get lined up in a row and we’re ready for the movie to reveal its true purpose—Political satire? Paranoid dystopian fantasy? Apologia for the Bush administration?—we suddenly realize it has none. It just, for some reason, wants to posit one possible scenario of the president’s demise and imagine what a lot of dull, cautious people might say about it. These include Secret Service agents (“Our job is to protect the president. We failed that night”), FBI forensics specialists, and a presidential speechwriter.

The film scrupulously avoids any graphic images of violence against the president—the shooting itself happens nearly off-camera—and any explicit anti-Bush sentiment is placed in the mouths of wing-nut lefty protestors. Given that none of the Bush fans in the movie come off as similarly extreme, the end result is a movie that, for all its supposed leftism, actually lands slightly right of center. It’s the Joe Lieberman of fake documentaries.

The one moment when Death of a President does show some political teeth is in its brief imagining of—shudder—the ascendance of Dick Cheney to the highest office in the land. Apparently, President Cheney will try to frame an innocent Yemeni for the president’s murder, covertly plot to overthrow the president of Syria, and implement a domestic security program called “Patriot III” that allows for unprecedented access to private citizens’ e-mails and phone conversations. The movie’s most imaginative leap into political fiction turns out to be the detail that rings the truest.

The Bridge (IFC Films), Eric Steel’s documentary about the Golden Gate Bridge as the world’s most popular suicide spot, is concerned not with one imaginary death but with 24 all-too-real ones: the two dozen people who leapt from the bridge to their deaths in 2004. That’s the year Steel decided to stake out the bridge with several wide-angle and telephoto cameras during nearly every hour of daylight, in the process capturing many of those jumps on film.

The Bridge dispenses with explanatory voice-over or the earnest testimony of mental-health experts about the social problem of suicide. Instead, it focuses on the simple yet almost incomprehensible experience of each of those 24 people who walked to the middle of the bridge, looked down at the 220-foot drop to the water below, and jumped. In shot after shot, we see people crossing the bridge on foot and by bike, staring off the edge, at times even climbing over the railing and perching on a ledge, only to be coaxed back to safety by bridge police or passersby. Luckily for the audience’s mental health, only a few of the suicides appear in the film, but once we’ve seen someone go over, every shot of the bridge becomes agonizingly suspenseful: What about that guy? Is he going to jump or not? And is it possible we sort of want him to?

The complaint could, and no doubt will, be made that Steel’s documentary aestheticizes the bridge (which he films as a monument of almost unearthly beauty) and exploits the jumpers as a sideshow act. But I would disagree. Steel has explained in interviews that as he and his crew watched pedestrians on the bridge, they kept the bridge police on their cell-phone speed dials to report any suspicious activity. If anything, their presence may have prevented some suicides that year. And the few glimpses we do get, from a distance, of falling bodies hardly serve to inure us, reality-TV style, to the horror of what’s happening—the effect is precisely the opposite. You leave The Bridge with a new appreciation for your (relative) mental stability and a vow to make the most of your brief, ephemeral life.

Between these long shots of the Golden Gate (unfortunately overscored with sentimental music), The Bridge contains interviews with surviving relatives and friends of the jumpers, who are admirably honest in their self-scrutiny. One woman recalls giving her depressed friend her own leftover medication and wonders if that mistake might have hastened his end. Another interviewee, a young manic-depressive man named Kevin Hines, tells what it’s like to have jumped off the bridge and lived—mainly because, during the 4.7-second fall, he regretted his choice and managed to shift into a feet-first position. He describes how, before taking his leap, he wept on the bridge for 40 minutes, only to be approached by a German tourist asking him to take her picture.

The film’s most haunting figure is Gene Sprague, a Goth-rocker type who was filmed wandering the length of the bridge for 90 minutes, his long black hair whipping in the wind, before finally climbing the railing to take a spectacular backward dive. Carolyn Pressley, a friend of Sprague’s mother who knew him his entire life, is perhaps the most philosophical and articulate of the survivors interviewed. “I don’t understand why people kill themselves,” she admits, “and yet it’s a small step to empathize. Why he chose the bridge I don’t know. … Maybe he just wanted to fly one time.”