It may be hard to remember what a phenomenon Robert James Waller's novel The Bridges of Madison County was fifteen years ago, as it's never really talked about anymore. At the time, though, the book was everywhere, and its popularity was such that Clint Eastwood's 1995 film adaptation earned $70 million at the box office despite essentially being a film about two middle-aged people talking about poetry, love, and their general philosophy of life. Try to pitch that now, and I bet you some studio executive tries to insert a cute talking dog or a robot or something. Anything to make it skew younger!
Italian immigrant Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) has settled into a quiet life in Iowa with her husband and two children. It's a simple existence, but she's managed to almost forget that she ever hoped for more, surviving in the day to day. That is, until her family is away for a week showing her daughter's prize steer at the state fair, leaving her alone to greet the handsome stranger that drives his pick-up into her front yard. Robert Kincaid (Eastwood) is in the area to take pictures of the historical covered bridges that mark the locale, and he's gotten lost. Though Francesca agrees to show him the way to his subject, in reality, Robert's the one who is going to show her the way back to passion. Over the next four days, the pair converses, shares meals, and eventually succumbs to the love that grows between them.
It's an easy plot to summarize. That's pretty much all there is to it. Outside of one night on the town at an out-of-the-way juke joint, if the pair is not in Francesca's home, they are at one of the bridges. If they are not talking, they are making love--though there is way more of the former than there is the latter. We see a little bit of small-town Iowa so that we can get a sense of Francesca's enclosed life, and we also occasionally jump back to a modern-day framing sequence featuring Francesca's grown-up children. They are discovering their mother's indiscretion only after she has died, via her lengthy journals. (How much exactly could she write about four days?!) Though I understand that Eastwood and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King, P.S. I Love You), and by extension Waller, are trying to impart the importance of this being a secret this housewife has carried for two decades, these breaks from the past are regrettable. They are jarringly bad in comparison to the rest of the movie--badly written, badly directed, badly acted. They are so reminiscent of the similarly awful frames that are tacked onto Saving Private Ryan and The Green Mile, I actually expected to discover that Frank Darabont had worked on a draft of the script.
The flashfowards are mercifully brief and easy to forgive since the rest of The Bridges of Madison County is so good. Watching Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood together is like watching some incredible boxing match of acting. With Clint pulling double-duty at the helm, the performers manage to find the soul of the story and create a majestically human portrait of two people surprised to find such heavy emotion in so unexpected a place. Both of the actors bring an earthy quality to their roles. They are real people with real bodies paying attention to every detail, every gesture, and every word the other says the way one does when in that first blush of romance. Streep in particular not only pays attention to what Clint is doing, but to what she is doing, realizing that a woman like Francesca would be extremely self-conscious about the attention she is receiving and desires. One of my favorite moments passes very quickly, and you'd almost miss it. When Robert comments on the special scent he has noticed in the Iowan air, Francesca very subtly checks her own body, afraid that maybe it's her. It's a vulnerable move, humorous, and very real.
The Bridges of Madison County is quite feminine in its point of view. Though we're used to seeing Hollywood stories about the ideal woman changing a man's life, in Bridges the man is idealized for a change. Rugged, handsome, and yet incredibly sensitive, Robert is always ready to lend a hand, share a kind word, or inquire about Francesca's feelings. Unlike a more male picture, the script never vilifies the absent spouse. Instead, it stays with what is important: the two people who have found each other. Yet, it also avoids making everything too perfect, tackling some of the harsher nuances of infidelity and, obviously, deciding its two lovers must ultimately separate.
I'm kind of surprised that more is not made of The Bridges of Madison County as part of Clint Eastwood's filmography. You'd think the fact that Dirty Harry is capable of such extreme tenderness would be a bigger feather in his cap. Given how much he struggles with sentimentality in the tough-guy movies he directs, it wouldn't hurt to remind him of when he was more in touch with his feminine side. It could make some of the movies he has down the road all the more richer.
Surprisingly, up until now, The Bridges of Madison County has only been available on DVD as a full frame presentation. This is particularly criminal when you take the time to notice how much Eastwood and cinematographer Jack N. Green, who shot most of Clint's movies between 1986's Heartbreak Ridge and 2000's Space Cowboys, use a wide frame to show not just the landscape outdoors, but the fullness of Francesca's house, which was a real home in Iowa that the production restored specifically to use in the movie. The realness of the environment comes through, including the persistent flies that wander through the frame and try to upstage the actors. Eventually, the camera moves in closer as the relationship gets more intimate, and the fact that they are fit into so large a picture space only adds to the intimacy.
Thankfully, this new "Deluxe Edition" puts The Bridges of Madison County on DVD at its intended 1.85:1 ratio at long last. The image is quite nice, with lots of subtle colors and really excellent shadows in the dark scenes. I did think I may have noticed some soft edges in a scene or two, as well as some spotting when the lovers were lit by firelight, but nothing so persistent that I couldn't be convinced my eyes were playing tricks on me.
Along with the new picture, The Bridges of Madison County also gets a new Dolby 5.1 sound mix. There isn't a lot to notice as far as this is concerned, there aren't a lot of effects to throw into a movie that is mainly about conversation, but the audio team does maintain a very natural atmosphere, including excellent use of music that is meant to be source audio being played on old radios.
There is also a French 5.1 dub as well as English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired.
Not a ton of extras for a "Deluxe Edition," but as we often hear, it's quality, not quantity that matters.
A new audio commentary with editor Joel Cox and director of photography Jack N. Green is excellent. Both have worked with Eastwood on multiple pictures, and they understand how the director works. Their conversation covers all aspects of production, full of detail, covering music, sets, their personal efforts, and everything else.
The half-hour documentary "An Old-Fashioned Love Story: Making The Bridges of Madison Country" tracks down the various participants, including Eastwood, Streep, LaGravenese, and producer Kathleen Kennedy, to talk about the production. It would have been nice had Robert James Waller had been interviewed about the book, as the featurette starts with discussing the novel, but you know, as the story teaches us, I guess you can't have it all. It's a good documentary otherwise, moving from start to finish of production with lots of good information about how it came together. Includes clips from the movie and on-set footage.
Finally, the DVD has the theatrical trailer and a music video called "Doe Eyes," an instrumental track from the score that cuts together footage of the movie into basically a mini version of it.
Now that The Bridges of Madison County is at long last getting the widescreen DVD treatment it has been lacking, I think it's high time we reassess this underrated Clint Eastwood effort. A very simple love story based on one of the biggest novels of the early 1990s, this movie about the short-lived love affair between a 1960s Iowan housewife and a world-traveling photographer is one of the most humanistic love stories to make it to the silver screen in the era of the high-tech blockbuster. It's tender, smart, and sensual. It's also a master class in acting, with Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep inhabiting their roles in such a way that they succeed in erasing any trace of themselves. For that alone, The Bridges of Madison County: Deluxe Edition is Highly Recommended. The rest is just frosting on the cake.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.