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Bridges of Madison County, The
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Richard LaGravenese, based on Robert James Waller's novel
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Annie Corley, Victor Slezak, Jim Haynie, Phyllis Lyons, Michelle Benes
When it was announced that Clint Eastwood would star in the film version of Robert James Waller's mega-selling 1992 novel "The Bridges of Madison County," there was pause everywhere. Fans of the aggressively romantic book -- Janet Maslin of The New York Times called it "arguably the world's longest greeting card" -- couldn't see Dirty Harry as sensitive flower-picking traveling photojournalist Richard Kincaid, who has a four-day affair with unfulfilled Italian immigrant Iowa housewife Francesca Johnson; the Clint contingent just squinted skeptically. But in the end few could complain. Eastwood also took on directing chores and working from a fine-tuned screenplay by Richard LaGravenese and with his dependable production team, including director of photography Jack N. Green and editor Joel Cox, created a masterpiece of its kind. While stemming from the classical, formalist Hollywood cinema of the 1940s and '50s (and set mostly in 1965), the picture-postcard-beautiful "Bridges" was state-of-the-art mainstream Hollywood in 1995. It helped make America's movie screens safe in 2002 for Todd Haynes' even more daringly retro tale of forbidden love, "Far From Heaven."
Working with inarguably thin source material, Eastwood and LaGravenese created a long movie that seems anything but padded out. Perhaps only Eastwood would hold shots so long in this day and age, letting himself and earthy co-star Meryl Streep exchange small talk and long looks as they dance around their instant attraction. There are no melodramatic elements like fatal illness or suppressed tragic memories to kick the action along; we're just watching two decent people fighting the feeling -- and losing.
The movie is far from perfect. The modern-day framing device -- in which the adult son and daughter of the recently deceased Francesca come home to settle her affairs and discover the evidence of the affair of 30 years earlier -- is obvious and awkward. (And a little creepy: the looks and smiles exchanged between brother and sister at movie's end are nearly as lovey-dovey as those between Eastwood and Streep.) Some of the dialogue is wincingly arch or "poetic" ("This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime," says Kincaid; "I realized love won't obey our expectations," offers Francesca). But that's all just water under the covered bridge in the face of Eastwood's invisible skill as a director and two great lead performances.
"The Bridges of Madison County" was released on a bare-bones DVD a decade ago, in 4:3 pan-and-scan. That mistreatment of this splendid-looking widescreen romance has been corrected in Warner's new Deluxe Edition. The film's original 1.85:1 (16x9) aspect ratio has been preserved, presented in a matted (bordered-in-black) format. The vast rural Iowa landscape is there in all its glory -- and all its oppressive power over the living-in-the-middle-of-nowhere immigrant Francesca Johnson.
The major action of the film takes place in late summer/early autumn, and director Eastwood and DOP Jack Green make the most of the region's beauty. The muted colors -- the dusty gravel roads, the faded red covered bridge that's the literal focus of the story, Francesca's drab farmhouse -- have been flawless transferred to disc. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is well-balanced and natural. There is an optional French dialogue track and English and French subtitles.
The DVD includes a brief original theatrical trailer, but the two main extras are new: a running commentary by Green and editor Joel Cox, and a half-hour making-of featurette that includes interviews with Green, Cox, production designer Jeannine Oppewall, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, co-producer Kathleen Kennedy, and Streep and Eastwood.
Mention is made of an original director who left the project before shooting started, but he goes unnamed. Eastwood offered to step in and direct it himself, and brought in his usual, well-oiled production machine. Principal photography, Kennedy notes with astonishment, was completed in a mere 36 days. Streep confesses to being surprised and delighted by Eastwood's no-rehearsals, one-take (two at most) shooting style. Green and Cox, in their joint commentary, are similarly enamored of Clint's remarkable professional efficiency and personal decency. The movie's Robert Kincaid -- thoughtful, friendly, talkative and smiling -- is the real Eastwood, they say. Dirty Harry and the Man With No Name? Pure acting.
The odds were against a good movie being made from Robert James Waller's over-the-top novel bestseller, but director-star Clint Eastwood pulled it off, creating an understated and moving romance about a traveling photojournalist and a farmer's wife who can't deny their instant and true connection. Warner's new DVD of the 1995 hit is a marked improvement on an earlier disc, this time presenting the original widescreen picture as well as a commentary track and other new extras. This is mainstream Hollywood filmmaking at its most professional.