From the opening strains of the noble Americana melody in ‘Sunlit Silence’, the second track on the soundtrack to the new Steven Spielberg thriller Bridge of Spies, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was John Williams and not Thomas Newman. Alas, Spielberg’s usual conspirator is still hard at work on The Force Awakens, but this is not a bad thing.
Newman’s score is elegant proof of why he was the perfect choice for the film once Williams knew he wasn’t going to be able to return from a galaxy far, far away in time, and you can bet on a thirteenth Oscar nomination. The album starts with the surprising tones of a Russian male choir in ‘Hall of Trade Unions, Moscow’, and beautiful and stirring emotional moments pepper the aforementioned ‘Sunlit Silence’ and ‘Standing Man’, but before it gets too comfortably John, some of Newman’s hallmarks cut in, with the inevitable – but welcome – hammered dulcimer, and the threatening, ghostly choir of ‘Lt. Francis Gary Powers’, which also features moments of tense thriller scoring that recalls his powerful music for another Oscar-nominated score of his, Skyfall.
One of Newman’s biggest strengths is his sense of suspence, and it’s here in droves, with ‘The Wall’ juxtaposing it against a more heroic melody, with a wonderful use of that Russian choir which feels both foreboding and regretful. It’s easy to see why Spielberg has gone for Newman, he has the
innate ability to magic up the sweeping melodies Williams usually creates for the director, but also his sense of musical narrative allows him to paint a picture without laying it on too thick; ‘Private Citizen’ has a lovely piano solo that’s slowly embellished with choir and you can see the imagery of the film in your head. It’s a tiny moment, not grandstanding in the slightest, but it feels important.
Newman’s approach to electronic elements is usually more overt to Williams’ and Bridge of Spies is no exception, but this is not a bad thing. It’s still augmentation rather than replacement, and for this film – and Spielberg – it works well. Narratively, you feel like it’s building up to something but it’s not an artificial feel, and it’s rewarded when the ten-minute ‘Glienicker Bridge’ comes along. It’s an odd cue – it feels vaguely inert at first by as Newman’s woodwinds start to twist it and a strangely off-kilter piano melody comes in, it feels like the fuse has been lit, albeit on a very long fuse.
Around the 6.00 mark, Newman injects an ethnic feel with a curious keyboard melody (that I originally thought was John Carpenter’s Halloween) and the Russian choir, stopping for a second before his noble Americana melody takes over. It’s a beautiful moment as it starts to soar, but it comes back down with a thud as piano with quiet electronics backing is brought in, with the orchestra returning to unify and create a new melody, warm and emotional.
Military percussion and brass plays out the rest of the cue, with a short string interlude, and there’s very much a feel that we’ve been witness – in a musical sense – to something really important. A noble solo horn opens another lengthy track ‘Homecoming’, which is the final cue before the end titles. There is just pure beauty contained here; Newman plays the Americana melody on piano and it feels, like the title, like a kind of return to a equilibrium, but the old one. It feels like the final act of a concert, and Newman therefore has the licence to play out in as much extravagance as he wants.
Funnily enough, it makes me think of another John Williams finale – from the brilliant War Horse. The similar sense of space to breathe, to walk, to run. The album closes with a reprisal of themes and motifs from the score, as you might imagine, with the Russian chorus providing a propulsive atmosphere you’d expect from a Cold War thriller and dominating proceedings, moving to a short reflective interlude before the Americana is brought back in to close things off.
Everybody shrugs off the Oscars as if no one cares about them, but I imagine Thomas Newman probably thinks he’s due. But with the reviews the film is getting, plus a score of this sheer quality with the type of characteristics the Academy is fond of, well let’s just say next Feb might see The Newman Awakens. I don’t think John would begrudge him that.
Bridge of Spies is out now on CD and digital in the US from Hollywood Records. A UK release has not yet been announced.