Judge Clark Douglas once met a photographer from National Geographic. Nothing of interest happened between them.
"This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime."—Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood)
Clint Eastwood's adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County was released in 1995, and was met with a great deal of acclaim from critics. The film received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Picture, and star Meryl Streep received best actress nominations from both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. So, how well is the film holding 13 years later? Is the new "deluxe edition" DVD a justified double-dip? Let's examine the case.
Facts of the Case
At the beginning of this story, two grown siblings have just lost their mother. The brother and sister are dealing with all the necessary details in the aftermath…setting up funerals, meeting with lawyers, all of that. In the middle of all this, they are shocked when a lawyer informs them that their mother wanted to be cremated. They protest, they don't understand, but that's what their mother apparently requested. In attempting to discover more about their mother, they begin digging through her things, and soon discover their mother's secret: she had an affair with another man when her children were only teenagers.
The mother's name was Francesca (Meryl Streep, Sophie's Choice), a gentle Iowa homemaker who was born in Italy. One day, her husband and children went off on a brief trip, leaving her at home by herself for a few days. During that time, Francesca meets Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood, Million Dollar Baby), a photographer for National Geographic magazine. Robert is in town to photograph some local bridges; he's doing a feature story on "The Bridges of Madison County." The two make a connection, and suddenly fall into a passionate love affair. This film tells the story of what happened between two people over the course of four life-altering days.
In my own humble opinion, Clint Eastwood is one of the most intriguing figures in recent cinematic history. We all know how he began his career as a movie star, starring in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns and the Dirty Harry films. He established himself as one of cinema's real tough guys and could have spent the rest of his days playing variations on the same "Eastwood character." He could have done that, but Eastwood started becoming ambitious. As a director, he began to reveal himself in new ways time after time, mixing in such diverse work as Play Misty for Me, Honkytonk Man, and Bird between his more typical action films. Eastwood's refusal to simply stick to what people expected him to do is a big part of the reason he is still very much an important part of modern cinema, and not simply a loveable old has-been.
When the announcement was made that Eastwood was planning to adapt Robert James Waller's novel The Bridges of Madison County, many critics were skeptical once again. The material seemed to be too delicate and fragile for Eastwood's rugged style of directing and acting, but once again, Eastwood surprised everyone. The Bridges of Madison County could very well be described as the most gentle film Eastwood has ever made. Here he tells a simple and melancholic story of a deep connection between two human beings, and does so in a manner that is touching and absorbing.
Twenty minutes into the film, the two characters meet for the first time. Seventy-three minutes into the film, they are in each other's arms. What happens during the 53 minutes between those two key moments demonstrates why Clint Eastwood is such a masterful director. Eastwood is also an accomplished musician, and his scenes have a musical quality to them. His scenes play out to slow and gentle rhythms, as Eastwood develops them like carefully constructed, long-lined melodies. The dialogue that occurs between the two characters subtly moves from casual to thoughtful to intimate. When the moment of physical connection finally arrives, the effect is (and I'm not using this word flippantly) electrifying. What could have been an ordinary love scene becomes intensely erotic because of the way Eastwood builds up to it.
The movie works on our emotions in an unusual way, which is part of what makes it so interesting. When Francesca's husband and children go away on a road trip, we know he will be back in four days. As time goes by, our emotions root for these two people to find happiness together, while our mind correctly informs us that for Streep to run off with this man would require her to abandon her loving family (and likewise, for Eastwood to succeed in luring her away would make him considerably less sympathetic). That conflict forms the emotional and moral core of the film, which Eastwood and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese examine very successfully during the film's second half.
When it comes to telling love stories, whether joyful or tragic, movies tend to prefer young, passionate, attractive individuals. It's not too often that we get stories about mature middle-aged/older adults, so a movie like The Bridges of Madison County is valuable for the simple fact that it exists. However, it's made really special by the performances of Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. If this is the gentlest film Eastwood has made, this is also probably the warmest character he has ever played. All shades of The Man with No Name and Dirty Harry are gone; this is a kind, thoughtful, sweet-natured individual. Streep is even better as Francesca, giving one of her great performances (and when you consider Streep's resume, that's quite a compliment). It should also be said that she remains one of the only actresses who can use any accent to perfection. Here, it takes less than a minute for us to believe she was born in Italy.
This new DVD looks quite nice, spotlighting Jack N. Green's softly-lit cinematography. Blacks could be a bit deeper, but the nighttime scenes still look quite good. I was really impressed by the sound design on this movie, which is simple but very effective, and it plays a big part in quietly tweaking the mood and feeling of the film. The 5.1 Surround is very good, offering an excellent balance between the elements. DVD extras included in this "deluxe edition" are okay, if nothing amazing. A half-hour featurette offers a nice little look at the making of the film, while a music video spotlights the main theme Eastwood wrote for the score. Finally, a commentary by the editor and cinematographer obviously focuses on the more technical aspects of the movie. It's a good track for those who appreciate the art of such things, but it would have been great if Eastwood, Streep, or LaGravenese could have participated to offer some insight into the story and characters.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I only have one complaint about the film. The scenes involving Streep's children as grown-ups lack the impressive qualities of the rest of the film. The lessons they learn from discovering this story feel like forced messages, and the performances of the two actors (particularly Victor Slezak as the son) are unconvincing.
If you haven't seen The Bridges of Madison County, now is a good time to give it a look. This new DVD from Warner Bros. finally gives this movie the widescreen transfer it deserves (the previous DVD was full screen), which I'd say is enough to merit an upgrade from the original, much less a first-time purchase. This is an excellent film. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary with Editor Joel Cox and Director of Photography Jack N. Green
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