BRIDGE OF SPIES – Thomas Newman
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Bridge of Spies, is a cold war thriller set in 1957 starring Tom Hanks as James Donovan, an insurance lawyer who is unexpectedly hired by the US Government to represent Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), an unassuming middle-aged artist accused of being a Russian spy. Although the evidence against Abel is overwhelming – and even though Abel himself does not deny the charges – Donovan mounts a spirited defense, arguing that the US constitution affords everyone due process to a fair trial. Months later, Donovan is called upon once again when a U-2 spy plane operating over Russia is shot down, and its young pilot is arrested by the Soviets. Realizing that Abel can be used as a bargaining chip, the CIA sends Donovan to East Berlin, just as the Wall is being erected, to negotiate a trade. The screenplay, by Matt Charman, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, is based on real events, and allows the narrative to unfold at a measured pace. This is a film about conversations, negotiations, political ideologies, and ethical dilemmas, and there is nary an action sequence in the entire film, which will alienate those who need more ‘stuff happening’, but which drew me into its intricacies. Tom Hanks is superb in the lead role, serious and honorable, while Mark Rylance is relaxed and unexpectedly funny in his role as the accused spy with an artistic flair. The film is also notable for another reason: it’s the first Steven Spielberg film in 30 years not to feature a John Williams score.
The last time a composer other than John Williams wrote music for Spielberg was in 1985, when Quincy Jones and his multitude of orchestrators composed the score for The Color Purple. As such, when it was first announced that Spielberg was making this film, it was considered pretty much a given that Williams would score it, and would work it around his schedule in scoring Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which will be released at Christmas. Then, during the early summer, it was unexpectedly announced that Thomas Newman would be writing the music instead, and it was not until fairly recently that we found out why: according to an interview Spielberg gave at a DGA screening of the film, 83-year-old Williams had a pacemaker fitted to correct an issue with his heart, and his required recovery period, coupled with his upcoming Star Wars responsibilities, meant that it was simply impossible for Williams to devote the time required to Bridge of Spies without further jeopardizing his health.
For many years, film music fans have been speculating about which composer Spielberg would turn to when Williams was no longer able to score his films. Names like Joel McNeely, Michael Giacchino, and Hans Zimmer had all been mentioned over the years, but now it seems like we have our answer in the shape of Thomas Newman. In many ways, Newman is a logical choice. John Williams and Alfred Newman, Thomas’s father, were friends – in fact, it was Alfred who gave ‘Johnny’ his first gigs in Hollywood, playing piano on several of his scores, and in turn Williams gave Thomas his own head start, allowing him to write some orchestrations for Return of the Jedi in 1983, when Thomas was still in his mid-20s. There’s a pleasing sense of things coming full circle in all this, and while it’s unlikely that future Spielberg/Newman collaborations will ever reach the same level of Spielberg/Williams, Bridge of Spies is a pretty good start.
Written for a full orchestra with special emphasis on strings and piano, with added choir and ethnic instrumentation for regional color, Bridge of Spies is a generally understated score, not given to enormous outpourings of emotion. It portrays the relationships in the film subtly, cautiously, but allows them to develop over the course of the film, until the superb final reel where several of Newman’s trademark emotional stylistics come to the fore. Interestingly, there is no score at all in the film for longs period of time, and when it does start to come in, it mostly echoes the quiet, intimate writing from early scores like The Horse Whisperer, How To Make An American Quilt, or Road to Perdition, as well as more recent works like The Judge or Saving Mr. Banks, with its meandering woodwind lines, soft string accents, gently rolling pianos, and tapped and plucked metallic percussion items, including the ubiquitous dulcimer.
The score actually begins with “Hall of Trade Unions, Moscow,” an overbearing choral idea with imposing Slavic phrasing, enlivened by tinkling balalaikas and which actually has a vague hint of Hans Zimmer’s The Peacemaker to it. The second cue, “Sunlit Silence,” is all purpose and business, with a potent trumpet refrain and choppy, important strings, which gradually shifts into the first performance of the lovely, noble main theme, a piece of rich, decent Americana that acts as a recurring idea for Donovan and his unshakeable ideals of what justice means.
Cues like “Ejection Protocol,” “The Article,” and “West Berlin,” are tense mood-setters, offsetting chugging strings with muted horns, bouncing pianos, metallic tapped percussion, and an overarching sense of urgency, while cues like “Rain” and “Friedrichstraße Station” have an almost playful cat-and-mouse vibe, with jazzy pianos and softly hooting clarinets engaging in some light musical conflict. Later, “Lt. Francis Gary Powers” is ghostly, almost abstract, with a processed choir and dissonant orchestral textures that occasionally explode into moments of percussion-driven madness, echoing the confusion and horror experienced by the downed pilot caught behind enemy lines.
These are counterbalanced by the enigmatic introversion of cues like “Standing Man” and “Private Citizen,” which are content simply to present little more than a series of shifting glassy tones, embellished with warm string harmonies, and an occasional reprise of Donovan’s theme, usually for woodwinds. Meanwhile, the impressively mournful Russian choral textures from the opening cue reoccur later in the oppressive “The Wall” and the more anxiety-filled “The Impatient Plan,” the former lamenting for the tragedy that the inhabitants of Berlin suffered as a result of its construction.
It is only in the final three cues – “Glienicke Bridge,” “Homecoming,” and the “End Title” – that Newman allows his music to rise and swell to anything approaching an emotional catharsis. Each of these cues is long, with a combined running time of over 25 minutes on their own, but this extreme length allows Newman to develop his music fully, capturing literally dozens of points of nuance, bringing in different textures, emotions, and thematic ideas as the time passes. “Glienicke Bridge,” which underscores the climactic scene of the prisoner exchange, is full of apprehension, from all sides: the pianos and horns of the Americans brush up against the voices, balalaikas and dulcimers of the Soviets, as both parties try to anticipate the other side’s next move. The music drops to a whisper as everyone holds their breath, waiting for news, quickly peaks with hope, before being dashed again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Newman’s score in this cue is a masterclass of how to make a scene that contains little more than people waiting around, kicking their heels, seem edgy and nervous. When the climax does come, with a stirring swell of brass and a militaristic percussion tattoo, the emotional release feels earned, like you’ve been waiting right there with Donovan and Abel in the snow and the darkness, on a lonely bridge across an inky, frozen river.
“Homecoming” combines all the patriotic nobility one would afford a returning hero, with the comforts of home; a solo trumpet refrain, a warm and welcoming oboe, a soothing wash of strings, and a tender piano performance of Donovan’s theme that beckons you in like your family’s embrace. Everything gets wrapped up in the superb “End Title” piece, which reprises most of the score’s main thematic and instrumental ideas, including expansions on the Russian motif and the militaristic percussion textures, before finishing on a lovely note with a final performance of Donovan’s theme.
Thankfully, Newman did not try to write a John Williams score for this film – it would have served no-one if Newman failed at being Williams, while simultaneously failing at being himself. It bears all his personal idiosyncratic compositional hallmarks, many of which will be over-familiar to some listeners, and as such may elicit accusations of Newman writing the same old score again. Personally, however, I feel that such criticisms would be unwarranted and a little unfair. While it’s true that Bridge of Spies is very much within Newman’s compositional comfort zone, I think that having such a unique voice, such a strong point of view, and such a clear musical identity, is rare in Hollywood these days, and as such should be embraced. Whether Thomas Newman will go on to be Steven Spielberg’s regular collaborator in the future is unclear, but if Bridge of Spies tells us one thing, it’s that the legacy of John Williams will be in good hands if he does.
Buy the Bridge of Spies soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Hall of Trade Unions, Moscow (0:43)
- Sunlit Silence (4:04)
- Ejection Protocol (1:56)
- Standing Man (2:11)
- Rain (1:21)
- Lt. Francis Gary Powers (3:04)
- The Article (1:36)
- The Wall (2:14)
- Private Citizen (1:35)
- The Impatient Plan (1:35)
- West Berlin (1:12)
- Friedrichstraße Station (1:20)
- Glienicke Bridge (10:51)
- Homecoming (7:46)
- Bridge of Spies (End Title) (6:57)
Running Time: 48 minutes 33 seconds
Hollywood Records (2015)
Music composed and conducted by Thomas Newman. Orchestrations by J.A.C. Redford. Featured musical soloists Steve Tavaglione, George Doering, Dan Greco and Rick Cox. Recorded and mixed by Tommy Vicari and Armin Steiner. Edited by Bill Bernstein and Jordan Corngold. Album produced by Thomas Newman.