Thursday, February 4, 2016

My Favorite Clint Eastwood Film

It feels strange to be in the middle of an Oscar season without Clint Eastwood.  Over the past two decades it's seemed like Eastwood always had a film in the conversation, even if it was one that I disliked.  I've had trouble with much of his recent output, such that I think it's beneficial to step back, look over his complete body of work, and remember that he's made several films that I like very much over the years, films that transformed his image from that of iconic Western star to dependable auteur.  His first directorial outing was a thriller, followed by westerns, crime, noir, war, action, and comedy films.  And there was also one, perfect romance.

"The Bridges of Madison County" has no business being as good as it is.  It's based on a bestseller of questionable literary merit, often castigated for being smarmy and maudlin wish-fulfillment.  The plot couldn't be more dubious: an Iowa housewife, the lonely and unappreciated Francesca (Meryl Streep), meets a National Geographic photographer, Robert (Clint Eastwood), who is in the area to take pictures of the covered bridges.  The two begin an affair while Francesca's husband is away for four days, and matters escalate from there.  All very trite and familiar, right?  However, the book generated enough attention to get Hollywood's attention.  And then Steven Spielberg bought the rights.  And then Richard LaGravenese added a new framing device and ditched the florid prose.  And then Eastwood and Streep got involved.

Cinematic romance is harder than it looks, because emotional connections are very difficult to fake onscreen.  Either there is chemistry or there isn't.  Between Eastwood and Streep, however, there are plenty of sparks.  Eastwood isn't usually seen as a sentimentalist, but it's the little moments of love and affection in movies like "Madison County" and "Million Dollar Baby" that tend to stick with me more than the hard-edged grimness of the more celebrated "Unforgiven."  I must have seen a dozen of the crime movies that Eastwood directed and starred in during the 1990s, but I can barely recall anything about them.  "Madison County," I remember, though, as if I'd only seen it yesterday.  I remember Meryl Streep's lovely transformation from dowdy housewife into sensual lover.  I remember the tender, patient cinematography.  I remember Francesca's incredulous grown children in the framing story being slowly, steadily won over by their mother's narrative along with the audience.  
Eastwood's biggest contribution here is his minimalism, his lack of frills and fuss.  The elements he needs to tell a good story are few, and he's always been known for working quickly and efficiently, under budget if possible.  While he does make good use of some scenic views of the Iowa countryside, reportedly inspired by John Ford, the film revels in its intimacy, the quiet moments that the characters enjoy alone or together.  It invites emotional responses because it isn't afraid of showing emotion and placing it front and center.  And it's not afraid of letting the characters talk and talk, and really say things to each other.  The final act hinges on the car scene, which is physically so limited, but so intense thanks to Streep's performance and the careful editing.  And it should be noted that Eastwood fought for Streep, over dozens of other actresses who were up for the part.  I wish this hadn't been the only time they worked together.

I've heard some comparisons of "The Bridges of Madison County" to "Out of Africa," mostly because of Streep's similar character, but the latter movie left me disappointed when I finally saw it.  The austerity and grandeur of the imagery wasn't as effective as the careworn, down to earth filmmaking of "Madison County."  It's far from a perfect film, with occasionally odd lines of dialogue, and some of the minor roles could have been cast better.  However, it has so much heart and soul, and it's unmistakably Eastwood's work through and through.  I love that he decided to play Robert himself, taking on a role that doesn't fit his usual persona, but he proved to be a great fit for anyway.  More modern directors should follow his lead.

"The Bridges of Madison County" is the reason I was so looking forward to Eastwood's planned remake of "A Star is Born," that sadly never got off the ground.  I'd like to see his softer side more often, because it is capable of so much more than it's given credit for.

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What I've Seen - Clint Eastwood

Play Misty for Me (1971)
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
Pale Rider (1985)
Unforgiven (1992)
A Perfect World (1993)
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Absolute Power (1997)
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)
Mystic River (2003)
Million Dollar Baby (2004)
Flags of Our Fathers (2006)
Letters from Iwo Jima (2006)
Gran Torino (2008)
Invictus (2009)
Hereafter (2010)
J. Edgar (2011)
American Sniper (2014)

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