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THE POST – John Williams

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

In 1971 the Washington Post was still a comparatively small-scale regional newspaper, lagging behind such behemoths as the New York Times in terms of prestige and influence. That all changed when the Post’s hard boiled news editor Ben Bradlee found himself in possession of what became known as The Pentagon Papers: a leaked classified report which proved that the US government had lied to the American people about the scope of its involvement in the Vietnam War, and that multiple US presidents were involved in the cover-up. Director Steven Spielberg’s film The Post tells the story of how the newspaper came into possession of the Papers, and the subsequent protracted legal and ethical battles that ensued over whether or not to publish; it stars Tom Hanks as Bradlee, Meryl Streep as the Post’s owner Kay Graham, and has a stellar supporting cast including Bob Odenkirk, Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Carrie Coon, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Sarah Paulson.

While the story of The Post may sound somewhat dry – to print, or not to print? that is the question! – it nevertheless has a pertinent social and political point to make in regard to the current state of American politics and the Trump administration. The right to a free press is a cornerstone of American society, and good journalists working for ethical newspapers are supposed to be the lens through which the public sees the world – reporting truths, stating facts, and holding those in power accountable for their actions. In this era of “fake news” and Trump-endorsed “alternative facts” adherence to the highest journalistic standards is more important than ever, and The Post celebrates those men and women who dedicate themselves to that ideal. In terms of the Washington Post, this event was just the beginning of their climb to the top of American newspaper journalism; just a year later, Post writers Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward would report on the Watergate scandal, leading to the downfall of President Richard Nixon.

The Post represents the 29th professional collaboration between director Steven Spielberg, and composer John Williams. Their relationship now dates back some 43 years, to The Sugarland Express in 1974, and has encompassed some of the biggest blockbuster films of all time, including Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, four Indiana Jones films, and dozens of other classics too numerous to mention. However, unlike most of their collaborations to date, The Post is a very different type of score. In many ways, it’s a throwback to the dramas Williams scored in the 1970s, crossed with the political thrillers of the 1990s; it has much in common with scores like Black Sunday and Sleepers, with their taut sense of drama and suspense, JFK and Presumed Innocent with their mystery and intrigue, The Eiger Sanction and Catch Me If You Can with their jazzy undertones. It’s a welcome return to a type of scoring that Williams hasn’t really embraced in well over a decade, and stands in perfect contrast to the flamboyance of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, proving that even at the age of 85 he hasn’t lost any of his dramatic sensibility.

Instrumentally, The Post is fairly standard: a symphony orchestra, augmented with a slightly larger array of percussion – both acoustic and synth – and, unusually for Williams, an electric guitar which adds a contemporary growl to the bass. What’s different about The Post is its application. Unlike most Williams scores, which overflow with themes and melody, this is a score mostly about rhythm and movement. It goes out of its way to depict the hectic hustle-and-bustle of the newsroom, and the behind-the-scenes skullduggery that old school news reporters used to get the story. It conveys the relentless and eternal conflict between money, law, politics, ethics, truth, and journalism. It even mimics the physical action of the presses themselves, printing tomorrow’s headlines on enormous machines. Only in its finale does Williams really lay on the patriotic Americana – and in those scenes, it soars.

It’s only a short album, but what The Post lacks in length it more than makes up for in quality. The opening cue, “The Papers,” is very much an exercise in rhythm and texture, comprising piano lines augmented by a chugging electric guitar pulse, and which slowly adds in a string section, brass accents, and fluttering woodwinds. It’s chock full of familiar Williams-esque suspense textures – as well as the scores mentioned above, it even has some brief hints of things that people will recognize from the darker parts of scores like The Lost World, or Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, with its overlapping sounds and fascinating shifting instrumental combinations. The way it depicts the turmoil within the newspaper regarding its etnical responsibility to the public when weighed against the legal and financial future of the organization, is masterful. The subsequent “Deciding to Publish” revisits these ideas, and features some especially interesting and breathless rhythmic writing.

“The Presses Roll,” which appears out of sequence on the album and actually appears towards the end of the film after the decision is made to print the fateful copy, is built around a bed of lively string ostinatos overlaid with constantly moving instrumental textures, staccato brass punctuations, offset by more meandering string ideas. It’s hopeful, optimistic, idealistic, but also slightly dangerous-sounding; some of the brass writing has echoes of the opening cue from Nixon, and there are some lovely brass and violin harmonies in the wistful second half.

Quite a bit of the score’s central bulk is made up of drama and suspense music, textural rather than thematic. “Nixon’s Order” is especially dark, featuring gripping string textures, harp glissandi, and soft muted brass. “Setting the Type” is built around a menacing 7-note ostinato for cellos which gets thrown around the orchestra and embellished with dark, driving rhythms led by brass. It’s urgent and anticipatory, as if leading up to a significant event. “Scanning the Papers” features some lovely, delicate flute writing bubbling over a bed of constantly undulating strings; this is music to underscore the pleasure of important research, and is full of movement, anticipating the thrill of discovery. Only in “Mother and Daughter” does Williams embrace something more lyrical; it’s a lovely, lush, warm piece for strings and piano that speaks to the relationship between Kay Graham and her family, and is something of a throwback to his early 90s writing, on scores like Stanley & Iris, The Accidental Tourist, and Always.

Both “The Oak Room, 1971” and “Two Martini Lunch” are lounge jazz source pieces for solo piano and stand up bass, and are a perfect representation of the music heard in old boys clubs during that time period. It’s tremendously authentic, and is reminiscent of the muted, jazzy writing Williams contributed to scores like Sabrina, or to some of his older stuff from the 1960s, like Penelope.

“The Court’s Decision and End Credits” is the big finale of both film and score, a superb piece of typically Williams-esque Americana, filled with gorgeous horn harmonies and striking string lines that have vague echoes of scores like Amistad, Lincoln, and maybe War Horse. It’s a quiet celebration of the triumph of American ideals, where truth always wins the day and acting in the service of the people is one of the most patriotic and noble acts a citizen can achieve. After a brief interlude featuring a tender piano solo, the second half of the cue is more forceful, bold, and propulsive, again returning to the style of writing he employed during the turbulent opening cue from Nixon; the throbbing brass and low end piano clusters are especially notable. As the cue reaches its conclusion Williams wraps things up with an ebullient, triumphant finale full of brass fanfares, enigmatic pianos, and warm hopeful chords, leaving the listener in no doubt that, at least in the opinion of these filmmakers, the Washington Post and companies like it are indeed important cornerstones of American democracy.

The Post is a nice change of pace for John Williams, who hasn’t really embraced this style of more subdued scoring for quite some time; everyone is so enamored with Star Wars and Indiana Jones that his more subtle, less ostentatious works often get overlooked, which is a shame because we need to be reminded just how good he is at them. It’s an important score for a prescient film, filled with intelligently rendered music that accurately keeps to the time period while allowing the talky subject matter to develop real dramatic impetus. If any Williams score is recognized by awards bodies in 2017 it’s likely to be this one.

Buy the Post soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Papers (3:56)
  • The Presses Roll (5:01)
  • Nixon’s Order (1:47)
  • The Oak Room, 1971 (1:46)
  • Setting the Type (2:34)
  • Mother and Daughter (3:23)
  • Scanning the Papers (2:23)
  • Two Martini Lunch (2:34)
  • Deciding to Publish (5:42)
  • The Court’s Decision and End Credits (11:04)

Running Time: 40 minutes 13 seconds

Sony Classical (2017)

Music composed and conducted by John Williams. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Ramiro Belgardt. Album produced by John Williams.

  1. Dono
    January 8, 2018 at 5:12 am

    A bland, forgettable score for a bland, forgettable ( and overhyped ) movie, imo. I think we can all agree that Williams’ best works are behind him, at this point. ( The same goes to Spielberg.)

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