Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Final Destination 5 would appear to call for a violent horror movie, but thanks to the Summer of Blood, I'm kind of violent horrored-out. Since this particular entry in the evergreen franchise involves a deadly bridge collapse, I figured...

There was a time when Clint Eastwood, in his twin guises of director and movie star, was simple and easy to pin down: a manly, macho, "think with your fists" sort of guy, the kind who was all about Westerns and war pictures and crime movies where the bad guys were easy to sort out and easier to kill. Pepper in a few comedies, but even those were pretty masculine and violent.

This state of affairs took a turn for the weird in the late '80s, when Eastwood directed Bird, a jazz biopic, and White Hunter, Black Heart, an unclassifiable critique of moviemaking and moviemakers, and ever since then his career has lunged strangely from place to place, sometimes with success and sometimes not, but always exploring: there are many things you can say against Hereafter, for example, but one of them is not that it finds the director resting on his laurels.

Still and all, the film that remains the furthest outlier in the Eastwood canon, I am convinced, simply must be The Bridges of Madison County from 1995, which found the director/star trying his hand at a melodramatic weeper, what they would have called a "woman's picture" back in the '40s, which is about the same moviemaking epoch that the film hearkens back to. That Dirty Harry Callahan, that the Man with No Name, would have seen fit to go for broke and make an unabashed chick flick is still surprising, but not half as surprising as the finished product, which adapts a by-all-accounts disposable romance novel into an absolutely devastating tragic love story, and is among the very best films in Eastwood's career, as director or as actor.

And yet, it is also not very surprising at all. His entire directorial career is, at heart, a throwback: no living filmmaker tries so consistently and so visibly to recreate the bare-bones essence of factory-made cinema from the golden age of the studios: he is the most old-fashioned of directors in that respect, and some of his best films have been dusty old formulas given a light contemporary dusting. The Bridges of Madison County is assuredly a dusty old romance: save for the word "fuck" and some carefully PG-13, fire-dappled lovemaking scenes, there's hardly a scene in it that wouldn've have played, more or less, exactly the same way in a movie made 50 years earlier. Perhaps it is the case that Bridges is more naturalistic, lit and shot to look much more like everyday reality, and acted with none of the swooning excesses that the soap-operatic scenario would have enjoyed in the immediate post-war era. But there's a much shorter line between this and a Douglas Sirk picture than the vast gulf in personality separating Sirk from Eastwood would suggest.

In its barest form, the film is about Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep, who received Oscar Nomination #10 for her efforts), a middle-aged woman living on an ancient family farm in Madison County, Iowa in 1965, who moved there from Italy after marrying an American GI in the '40s. One week, when her husband and children are at the Illinois State Fair exhibiting cattle, she chances to meet Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), a photographer on assignment for National Geographic, documenting the covered bridges in the region. What starts as an opportunity for Francesca to chat with a new face for the first time in, presumably, years, quickly becomes something deeper as the handsome stranger regales her with stories of life on the road, seeing the world through a camera lens.

For some odd reason, this film out of all the dozens (hundreds!) of films in which a married person discovers that s/he's fallen in love with somebody else became a battleground in the culture war - not that you'd expect anything else from that notorious hippie feminist Clint Eastwood - largely on account of hitting a chord with just about everybody: apparently the time was right for a heart-wrenching movie about a love affair, or perhaps it's that Bridges of Madison County is an unusually excellent example of the form. Either way, the film was a bigger deal than its impressive but not gangbusters box office take would indicate, and that included a really strange backlash that seems to largely consist of concluding that Francesca is a slutty slut-faced slut. Which is sort of fair-ish, I suppose, but I would not want to spend too much time discussing art and love with somebody who took that message out of the movie. For one thing, Richard LaGravenese's quiet script and Streep's immaculate performance - about which more anon - make it pretty damn clear that Francesca's affection for her husband was never exactly the same thing as "love", and whatever was there in the first place has been smothered by two decades of having the same conversations with the same people in the same locations year in and year out. She is bored, but it's worse than just boredom; she has become, to her children and her husband, wallpaper, the thing in the house that makes dinner and kisses you goodnight. Robert represents all sorts of wonderful avenues of escape: he has seen things she has never seen, and through his eyes and his camera, all of the bits and pieces of the landscape that she has long since ceased to notice become fresh and beautiful. He longs for her in a way she has never felt. This isn't infidelity to her: her marriage has already become expressionless and disaffected.

The film fits securely into the tradition begun before there were even movies, but given its finest cinematic expression in Brief Encounter: the "single spark of joy in a life of constant routine" tragic love story. All these movies plum more or less the same emotional terrain, and often even the same plot points: what differentiates them is the skill with which the filmmakers and actors breathe life into the scenario. As mentioned, there's a hell of a lot of skill involved in the making of The Bridges of Madison County, though nobody is more indispensable than Streep. Now, she and I have had our little differences in the past: from time to time I am known to approvingly recall Pauline Kael's famous remark that Streep is a great actress "from the neck up". Especially in her Serious Work of the late '70s and most of the '80s, she is too frequently so self-consciously proud of her technique that she foregrounds it, makes certain that we all notice how precisely she holds her body and the considerable accuracy of her menagerie of accents, that we coo with enthusiasm over each subtlety and nod our heads and say, "why yes, that is magnificent acting". Which it is, but I'll take somebody less fussy any day, and it's for this reason that I uniformly prefer Streep's comic performances to her dramas.

Anyway, I came to praise Streep, not to bury her, and I should get around to saying that I think Francesca is the best of all her "serious" performances: there's barely a single moment where the technique is more obvious than the character, none at all once Robert shows up and the melodrama really starts to ramp up. The film is gravely concerned with little moments and quiet reflection, and Streep responds in kind, often driving entire scenes with nothing bigger or showier than the precise moment at which she forces a half-smile onto her downturned face. Eastwood, the director and the actor, wisely stays out of her way for the most part, ceding her every scene and staging shots to draw all our attention to her (one of the most potent visual moments in the film comes after Francesca's family returns, and Streep is, for the first time in more than an hour, placed in the frame arbitrarily to the side; it cruelly reminds us that her brief moment of total happiness and control is now over). The result is not at all The Streep Show, but she is certainly allowed to drive all the human longing and suffering in the plot. That's quite a bit of longing, and quite a bit of suffering.

That comes in amongst all the aesthetic touches that define Eastwood's drama's: a spare, plaintive musical cue that never manages to resolve itself into a melody as such, and simple cinematography by Jack N. Green that accentuates the physical feeling of places in a manner somewhat more nostalgic than realistic. The film is good enough; Streep is the X-factor that makes it excellent. (Eastwood is, himself, quite good, and trades on his rugged charm better than he ever has as a romantic lead. But he is not at all so vital onscreen as his co-star, though he takes top billing).

But like any Eastwood film, the director is curiously uninterested in fighting the script: where it is good (and LaGravenese does a phenomenal job of rescuing the story from Robert James Waller's tired prose - I couldn't finish the book), the movie is beautiful and moving, and where it is not good, the movie jerks to a halt. Where it is not good, is largely in the most broken framework narrative this side of Saving Private Ryan, in which Francesca's grown children (Annie Corley and Victor Slezak) find a letter among her affects after her death, in which she tells them of her glorious four-day affair. This hits them both close to home - they are both teetering on the edge of divorce, and makes them question all they think they know about happiness and love and so on and oh my God get on with it, I kept thinking every second they were onscreen, you aren't interesting. All they do is make things more obvious, and longer - and it wouldn't hurt the two-and-a-quarter-hour film to be a little bit shorter - and then there's the occasional narrative in which we hear Francesca reading the letter and making explicit what had been better left silent. "I was sitting in the same bathtub where he was just showering", she says, or words to that effect, as though the slightly pained, moody look on Streep's face didn't already make that abundantly clear, and in a much more satisfying way.

Still, framework narratives are easy to ignore. And what remains of The Bridges of Madison County is at times sublime, a gentle character study of a unique woman and a unique place, both captured with such precision that the whole thing becomes ecstatically universal. It's sentimental as all hell, in the best possible way.