Plunging audiences into the wintry depths of the Cold War, Steven Spielberg's latest movie Bridge of Spies has been acclaimed as one of his best. The story begins in 1957 when convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance) is granted American insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) as his defense. However, the situation deepens in complexity when Donovan is sent to the fractious climate of East Berlin to organise an astonishing prisoner swap between America and Russia: Abel for captured spy pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell). Before long, the fate of the world hangs on the shoulders of one unassuming man. Complex and talky but endlessly engrossing, Bridge of Spies is driven by a typically ironic and witty script co-written by the Coen brothers. Spielberg's flair for distilling volumes of information through accomplished visual storytelling is once again apparent and in the form of Hanks, he has a deeply relatable human centre although the show is stolen by Britain's Rylance, wonderfully unassuming and calm as the unflappable spy at the centre of the burgeoning political crisis.
The film is also notable in Spielberg's filmography for another reason: it's his first movie not scored by John Williams since 1985's The Colour Purple. Owing to health issues Williams had to bow out, paving the way for Thomas Newman as Spielberg's new collaborator of choice. Newman had an outstanding year in 2015, with The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Spectre and He Named Me Malala under his belt, and Bridge of Spies is another fine effort. What's pleasing is how effectively Newman's idiosyncratic musical voice meshes with the more overt and accessible stylistics of Spielberg as a filmmaker; as a director, he has always encouraged Williams' more overt approach but it wasn't necessarily clear whether Newman would be allowed to parade his signature style. Fortunately, the answer is a resounding yes.
As usual with Newman, the score envelops listeners in a rich soundscape whilst gradually introducing thematic material that takes full flight during the climax. The album starts with the brief, Slavic-themed "Hall of Trade Unions, Moscow", a portentous male voice choir possessing a wonderfully evocative and doomy air. The comparatively warmer, more fulsome Americana material then takes over in the wonderful "Sunlight Silence": noble trumpet and prominent snare drums (redolent of Newman's animated work such as Finding Nemo) then give way to a beautifully ennobling string and piano wash for Hanks' morally upstanding lawyer, elaborated on in ensuing tracks like the lovely "Standing Man". It's a glorious and engaging theme, reminiscent of classic Newman works like Little Women and Road to Perdition. Perhaps inevitably, there's more than a bit of Williams in there too.
Next to emerge are the choppy strings of the dramatic Russian theme in "Ejection Protocol": at its core, the score juxtaposes both the American and Russian themes in order to reflect the Cold War dynamic at the centre of the movie. Needless to say, the Russian piece isn't often one to emerge in its entirety: rarely a composer to aggressively impose on the narrative, Newman instead leaves its most memorable interpretation until the end credits. It is in fact refreshing to have a Spielberg movie that is scored relatively sparingly: for a drama with so much dialogue, it's vital that the audience isn't distracted by the music, and Newman's natural instinct to hold back makes him ideal for the job.
For the majority of the score, the composer plays around with that familiar, delightful sound comprised of fluttering woodwind textures, undulating pianos, rich acoustic ambience and a host of eccentric instruments that give a pervasive sense of movement; cues such as "Rain" with its teasing hints of the Soviet theme demonstrate this perfectly. We return to the brooding choral material in the dark "Lt. Francis Gary Powers", almost certainly the bleakest moment in the score and one that captures the character's despair at the hands of the Soviet forces. "The Article" briefly restores a moment of hope with its resounding, rousing horns, although it too leads into a strident piece for strings, hinting at Donovan's forthcoming negotiation with the Russians.
As a result, the eerie "The Wall" proceeds with desolate winds, strings and choir, brilliantly evocative in the way it captures the movie's snow-swept East Berlin setting. "Private Citizen" and "The Impatient Plan" are two of those characteristically hypnotic Newman tracks, revolving around carefully modulated changes in the soundscape, including piano and ghostly choir, to lend a melancholy, even apprehensive feel. The Russian theme takes over again in "West Berlin", staccato strings and brass suitably imposing. The brief "Friedrichstraße Station" again features the strident Soviet piece and is the ideal entrée to the score's longest cue, "Glienecke Bridge", accompanying the film's engrossing conclusion.
Expertly moving through a host of emotions from apprehension to desolation to quiet patriotism and back again, this is where Newman binds all of the score's instrumental ingredients together, eventually building to an atypically bold militaristic rhythm that is quite wonderful. At 10 minutes in length, it's an unusually long cue for Newman who more often than not favours brief pieces that lead into one another. It demonstrates his mastery of the sort of extended writing at which the late James Horner excelled – a comparable piece would be the sumptuous "That Next Place" from Meet Joe Black, although the tone of the Bridge of Spies track is understandably more reserved.
However, the score's true highlight comes in the lushly beautiful "Homecoming", the climactic statement of Donovan's theme where Newman unleashes that formidably emotional sense of catharsis after holding so much of the score carefully in check. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there's more than a touch of maestro John Williams in the warmly noble string, piano and horn progressions, although let's not forget Newman has also delivered several acclaimed Americana scores along such lines (think The Horse Whisperer, How to Make an American Quilt, Phenomenon, The Shawshank Redemption and numerous other classics). Never schmaltzy but always ringing true with sincere integrity, Newman's melodic writing again makes for some of the most powerful in the business. Everything then wraps up with the climactic "End Title" suite, a dynamic representation of the score's main ideas including a brilliant, bold vocal interpretation of the Russian theme and one final statement of Donovan's theme.
In an era of so much mass-produced, homogenous film music, it's a bracing joy to know that unique talents like Thomas Newman are being utilised on superb films like Bridge of Spies. He's a rare composer with a truly, almost defiantly singular voice, a keen dramatist who carefully builds a sense of mood across each of his soundtracks before richly rewarding the listeners in the home stretch. Newman's first collaboration with Steven Spielberg has allowed him to mix both his familiar, off-kilter material with the appealingly melodic nature of his more accessible scores; it may often sound like John Williams (unavoidable given his legacy) but it also very much sounds like a Newman score. Bridge of Spies caps off an outstanding year for this superb composer and it would be most welcome to see him collaborate with Spielberg again in the not-too-distant future.