Movie Review: The Bridges of Madison County (1995)

A Tour de Force by Eastwood, Streep __ 9/10

Bridges of Madison CountyFrancesca: Robert, please. You don’t understand, no-one does. When a woman makes the choice to marry, to have children; in one way her life begins but in another way it stops. You build a life of details. You become a mother, a wife and you stop and stay steady so that your children can move. And when they leave they take your life of details with them. And then you’re expected move again only you don’t remember what moves you because no-one has asked in so long. Not even yourself. You never in your life think that love like this can happen to you.
Robert Kincaid: But now that you have it…
Francesca: I want to keep it forever. I want to love you the way I do now the rest of my life. Don’t you understand… we’ll lose it if we leave. I can’t make an entire life disappear to start a new one. All I can do is try to hold onto to both. Help me. Help me not lose loving you.

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Novel by Robert James Waller
Screenplay by Richard LaGravenese

Clint Eastwood … Robert Kincaid
Meryl Streep … Francesca Johnson
Annie Corley … Carolyn Johnson
Victor Slezak … Michael Johnson
Jim Haynie … Richard Johnson

In a career of directorial superachievements, The Bridges of Madison County stands out for Clint Eastwood. In a career of acting superachievements, The Bridges of Madison County stands out for Meryl Streep. It’s also a fine achievement for Eastwood as an actor, playing the fascinating loner-wanderer photographic-artist, Robert Kincaid, from Robert James Waller’s best selling book.

As I recall, when Waller wrote the book in 1992, it was his first attempt at creative fiction. And checking Wikipedia on him, he appears to have had an academic background with teaching of business management. He was dean of the College of Business at Indiana University, to which he left a large contribution following his success with Bridges and another novel, Puerto Vallarta Squeeze. Waller is a true-blue Midwesterner born in Iowa. I believe he self-published Bridges and promoted the book outside the normal East Coast publishing channels or critics.

As a consequence of some high-society faux pas, Waller’s name became mud, even more so as the book topped the New York Times Bestseller list and he became an overnight author-millionaire. I remember the book being just fine, well, more than just fine: it was wonderfully flowing and moving. And romantic.

So, if you ask me, a lot of the negative critical reaction to Bridges smacks of envy and sour grapes. Then the movie comes along in 1995—you should definitely watch the extras that come with the DVD—and it was good, too. Watching it 15 years later, and with the benefit of the DVD discussion features, I realize what a fine piece of cinematic art has been created here… by Eastwood and Streep, mainly, but by the rest of a dynamite cast and crew. I did realize that Eastwood puts a lot of his actors in many of his movies, but I did not realize that he keeps the same crew together. This partly accounts for the efficiency of his productions.

It’s also a wonderful setting.

The context for the story lies in some historic covered bridges that do exist in in the county of Madison, in the Iowa countryside, near the city of Des Moines. A photographer for National Geographic in the 1960s, Robert Kincaid (Eastwood) has been assigned to do a shoot on these bridges. Kincaid is a world traveler and currently lives in Washington State. Searching for the Roseman Bridge, he stops at the farmhouse of Richard and Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) to ask directions. That scene is vintage Eastwood and Streep: he turns on the charm, and after talking briefly about what he’s looking for, he very tentatively wonders if she will be so kind as to accompany him along the unmarked roads. “If it won’t be too much trouble.” She replies:

“I was just going to have some iced tea and split the atom, but that can wait.”

Marvelous, and I didn’t remember that line from the first viewing of the movie many years ago. That little flower of humor placed just so, with the Meryl Streep Italian war-bride inflection, says so much. What we’ve already seen in scenes leading up to this encounter is how her Midwest family Francesca has all the earmarks of eternal boredom—the husband and teenage boy and girl sit at the dinner table in total silence (except for the chewing sounds), and the girl turns off Francesca’s opera radio-channel in favor of rock ‘n’ roll. We know immediately Francesca had in mind a different life from the one she left Italy with American serviceman Richard Johnson (Jim Haynie) to find.

Robert picks up on the humor, too. From that point forward and for the next four days—while Francesca’s family is off at the Illinois State Fair showing some prize livestock—the relationship between the two rises like a warm spring breeze. They are two incredibly interesting people: Kincaid, of course, with the worldly passion, the artistic sentiment, the work ethic, the fondness for poetry. [What is only suggested in the movie is that Kincaid has a special love affair with words, he likes to write down ones that have a beautiful sound.] With Francesca, it’s 1965, and women, especially married women are supposed to fall in line with their spouses, live their lives through their husbands and children. But she’s different, not only in the way she responds to Kincaid’s virtues, but in how she asserts her own. She, too, loves the conversation, misses it desperately. Moreover, she finds Robert “the most sensual man she has ever seen.”

I had thoughts about him I hardly knew what to do with, and he read every one. Whatever I wanted, he gave himself up to, and in that moment everything I knew to be true about myself was gone. I was acting like another woman, yet I was more myself than ever before.

I believe you can see from quotes like the above, that come from the book, the writing of Bridges is on another level of fiction. Yes, despite what the critics may have harped about, Waller’s language expresses the soul of pure romance. As Kincaid puts it later in the story, “This kind of certainty comes but once in a lifetime.” If you read Francesca’s words slowly and out loud, you realize they bypass the conceptual faculty, like music, you hear them with your emotions, with your soul, in a wordless language of love.

You appreciate how the moviemakers stay true to that language, and you also are thankful if you’ve ever come close to this level of experience.

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