The Bridges of Madison County is many things, but it’s definitely an adaptation of a best-selling novel. Thanks to director Eastwood, it’s not a cheap adaptation of a best-selling novel, but it’s still an adaptation. There’s still a frame. No matter how much Eastwood deglamorizes it, no matter how well Richard LaGravenese writes most of it, there’s a lot of narrative ease ways and didactic padding. Not bad didactic padding, vague feminism in fact, but the padding is questionable.
Because here’s what Bridges of Madison County is about. Meryl Streep is an Italian woman who lives in Iowa in 1965. She’s smarter than her husband, her friends, and her neighbors. She’s intellectually ready to debate the human condition yet she has to make sure her husband’s socks are folded right. Because it’s 1965 and it’s not great. Along comes Clint Eastwood, who’s a careful “National Geographic” photographer and it turns out Streep likes the cut of his jib. And vice versa.
Thanks to Streep, Eastwood, LaGravenese, Joel Cox’s editing, Jack N. Green’s photography, and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design, it’s never sensationalized. Instead, it’s a characters study. Streep and Eastwood get to know one another and the audience gets to know them. It’s beautifully acted, it’s thoughtfully written, it’s exquisitely produced. It’s the kind of thing Fellini could have done in the States in 1965 if he’d sold out.
But it’s not a mainstream accessible thing. Yes, maybe enough flyover audiences are willing to go with adulterers not actually being demonic, but the whole thing is a strange sell. Eastwood’s not Robert Redford, Streep’s not Italian. And then Eastwood goes ahead and drains as much sensationalism out of the frame as he possibly can. Again, LaGravenese helps–he’s really good at writing scenes between two people, but he’s not great at confrontational scenes. Eastwood can compensate for it in the flashback with he and Streep. He can’t do anything about there being a mainstream inspirational denouement. Because, thanks to Streep–and, really, not movie stars Annie Corley and Victor Slezak as Streep’s kids in the frame–he’s able to get the movie done without too much damage. But it’s a rough sequence. Just because it’s not someone stunt-casted into the frame doesn’t mean it’s not narratively jarring.
Luckily, Eastwood’s got one final secret weapon to keep the film on track–the music. He and Lennie Niehaus compose this great theme for the film and Eastwood only barely teases it out through the actual film. The end credits, shots of the film’s locations relevant to the Streep and Eastwood scenes, set to the full theme? They devastate. Because some of Bridges of Madison County is Eastwood asking for a pass. He’s asking for indulgence. Give the film that indulgence, it’s got a phenomenal performance from Streep, a fairly great one from Eastwood, and some excellently paced two person scenes.
Of course, Eastwood could’ve done worse with the framing scenes as far as the filmmaking and the acting. Corley and Slezak are great. But they’re entirely pointless. Eastwood, Oppewall, and Green are entranced with the 1965 setting. There’s just no other way to start the film off and still make Streep immediately sympathetic. Eastwood hangs tough with the flashback sequence and its constraints.
The flashback–Streep and Eastwood–is a love letter. The frame is a journal. The journal’s all right… it’s got Streep, but it doesn’t have Eastwood. The third act just goes on too long, all of it in the present. There needed to be a handoff in emotional intensity but Eastwood’s not interested enough. He’s competent and present in the frame; he’s ambitious and feverish in the flashback. He and Streep’s first kiss scene is crazy good. And he works as an actor. Sometimes foolishly he runs into the part. There’s a pleasing hum to the flashback scenes, which Streep probably generates on her own, and as long as Eastwood’s performance is enough with the current, he’s sailing.
It’s enthralling. And then it has to end. To be fair to LaGravenese (and apparently uncredited executive producer Steven Spielberg), Eastwood doesn’t know how to bring it to the end either. He doesn’t want to say goodbye to this fantastic creation of Streep’s either.
Maybe the strangest thing Eastwood manages to do is so fully control the tearjerker aspect of the film. He, Niehaus, Cox, and Streep manage to turn it into a celebratory ugly cry. Sure, there’s still some sense of tragedy, but it’s in a far greater, human sense.
The Bridges of Madison County is mostly great, a tragic Frankenstein. It’s too good at being a big budget economy intellectual romance novel about human connection in the July-October set to just be an adaptation of a best-selling novel.
Directed by Clint Eastwood; screenplay by Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel by Robert James Waller; director of photography, Jack N. Green; edited by Joel Cox; music by Lennie Niehaus; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Eastwood and Kathleen Kennedy; released by Warner Bros.
Starring Meryl Streep (Francesca Johnson), Clint Eastwood (Robert Kincaid), Jim Haynie (Richard Johnson), Michelle Benes (Lucy Redfield), Annie Corley (Carolyn Johnson), and Victor Slezak (Michael Johnson).