How John Williams Won the Cold War (and Why Spielberg is Lost Without Him)

Relations between the United States and Russia have sunk to frigid temperatures not felt since the end of the Cold War. This state of affairs has in turn stoked nostalgic thoughts about the good old days when the defenders of democracy could best an opponent even after decades of struggle. If, as some still like to claim, the contest was won by the Americans, then the single figure who contributed most to the victory was not the third-rate screen-actor-turned-politician, Ronald Reagan, but the far more effective Hollywood hero, film composer John Williams.

You’ll never convince me that the senile Gipper’s call for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in his 1987 speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate (assuming the whole thing wasn’t staged on a back lot either in the Berlin film center of Babelsberg or in distant Hollywood) was a more forceful blow for the West than Williams’s movie music had been over the previous decade. Had a specially commissioned Williams score been performed by live orchestra behind Reagan on that June day in 1987, the Berlin Wall would have crumbled right then and there.

Williams’ Star Wars scores, not surprisingly held to be the most memorable in the history of cinema by the American Film Institute, did more for the cause of freedom-loving capitalism than all the White House covert operations, foreign assassinations, and nuclear deterrents put together. Animated by that celebrated Williams combination of wide intervals projecting action and longer notes portraying unswerving resolve, the heroic Star Wars theme is the ultimate aural embodiment of liberty fought for and defended. This music serves as the democratic antidote to the totalitarian lash of snare drum and repressive repeated notes of the Imperial March heard in the Empire Strikes Back of 1980, the first of too many Star Wars sequels. Wisely, Williams exited the Death Star franchise after the initial trilogy; unwisely, however, he has returned to score the latest offering, The Force Awakens, the seventh in the interminable series. To call Williams’ classic world-beating melodies and their scoring merely allegorical would be to ignore their verifiable effects: they are about as allegorical as a battery of howitzers.

When Harrison Ford climbed out of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon and into and onto a whole fleet of vehicles—from planes to tanks to ships to horses—and took on Darth Hitler and the Nazis in a string of Raiders of the Last Ark films he could only do so with the covering fire of Williams’ orchestral ordnance. It was this man’s music that gave the on-screen hero his courage, and, more vitally, made him mythic. No one has fought the foes of freedom with greater skill and conviction than Williams.

It was more than simply a convenient bit of historical packaging that Williams’ scores for Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade and Born on the Fourth of July hit movie theaters all over the world the same year that the Iron Curtain was ripped down. If you wanted to know what kind of freedom the last Super Power would soon be offering the newly liberated world, all you had to do was go to a Spielberg movie and listen.

Williams’s services to that red-and-white-blue flag waving subliminally behind Spielberg’s Technicolor screen were recognized in front of the U. S. Capitol on the Fourth of July in 2014 in the celebrations marking the bicentennial of the national anthem. This spurious event came just two years after Williams’ patriotic soundtrack for Spielberg’s Lincoln had garnered him yet another automatic Academy Award nomination. Who else but the country’s most revered composer could have been called on to produce a new arrangement of this transatlantic all-male drinking song for such an occasion? Having learned his lessons over a long and distinguished Hollywood career, the composer’s tele-prompted introduction to the solemnities was undergirded by reverent strings as he read his lines about the 1814 Battle of Baltimore and the inspiration of Francis Scott Key, whom William’s referred to as “the young poet,” as opposed to “the racist doggerelist”—the description of the hymn’s author that I favor. Williams then mounted the podium and with his baton and engraved his own name on the national frieze of musical honor.

Since the end of World War II Americans most politically potent export has not been arms and soldiers, but movies. Over the last forty years the elite unit headed by Steven Spielberg has had Williams leading its sonic brigades. The collaboration between the two dates to 1974 with the director’s debut, The Sugarland Express; the year after that came the first of their many joint blockbuster successes, Jaws. In nearly a half-century of composing for Hollywood Williams has had some fifty Academy Award nominations netting five Oscars, the last four of these for Spielberg films.

Thus it is a supreme irony—in the medium of the Hollywood movie supremely antithetical to irony—that when Spielberg turned his camera from the Civil War to the Cold War in Bridge of Spies Williams was not on board, but instead composing again for that galaxy far, far away. Back on earth, the eighty-three-year-old Williams has certainly earned his honorable discharge from the Spielberg army.

The famed director has instead enlisted Thomas Newman, scion of Hollywood’s first musical family, to join this latest campaign to remind Americans of their core values of justice and the rule of law, these lofty ideals textured with unthreatening doses of canny realpolitik. This composer is the youngest son of Alfred Newman, who piled up a record nine Academy statuettes; Thomas is still winless after nine nominations. His best work to date was for the overrated American Beauty (1999) around which he painted a musical nimbus of gnawing unease.

2015 is another busy year for the junior Newman and we’ll soon be able to compare his dismally earnest score for Bridge of Spies with that of a very different Cold War reheat job—the latest James Bond installment, Spectre. Don’t expect much in the way of exuberant foolishness in the material Newman fits around the much-litigated Bond theme composed by either John Barry or Monty Norman, depending on whose lawyers you believe.

That Bridge of Spies is the first Spielberg in decades without a soundtrack by Williams makes it possible to do a controlled experiment calibrating the importance of Williams’ music to the director’s vaunted story-telling gifts.

Spielberg’s is an approach that banishes all ambiguity, crisply dotting every sans-serif “i” and crossing each T with oppressively perfect perpendicularity. To catalog all of these Euclidian manipulations would take pages, so I’ll just cite one of the most egregious here.

Having given the imprisoned Russian spy Colonel Abel (played by the British actor Mark Rylance, who’s performance is the most understated and also the best in the film) a robust defense that is resented by the judge, by the rabidly anti-communist neighbors and police, and even by the wife and kids, insurance-lawyer-turned-defense-attorney James B. Donovan (the ever-reliable Tom Hanks) is dispatched by pipe-smoking CIA director, Allen Dulles (Peter McRobbie), to fly to Berlin to negotiate the exchange of Abel for Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), whose U-2 spy plane has been shot down over the Soviet Union. (Newman’s music for the visually spectacular downing of the U-2 should have exploded with raw, panicked energy; instead it is wanly derivative of Bernhard Hermann’s seminal main theme for Pscyho, here drugged and straitjacketed like Anthony Perkins’ Norman Bates at the end of that movie. When Powers’ parachute finally opens we are relieved not because this allows the pilot to survive, but because the flabby soundtrack gets the soft landing it requires.)

In advance of Donovan’s diplomatic mission we see the Berlin Wall going up at ahistorical speeds approaching those of Power’s plane. To dramatize this watershed development, Newman begins by deploying the tired minimalist cliché of a crescendoing unison before violins emerge to lurch back and forth over a half-step, a melodic trope pulled directly from the waters off of Martha Vineyards once menaced by Williams’ Jaws. Even though it is meant to conjure surreptitious soviet scheming, Newman’s music has neither the teeth of originality nor the bite of dramatic purpose. The semitone is literally one step larger than the unison, a constricted compass fittingly as small as the range of Newman’s musical invention. Added to the tepid mix are the pseudo-mysterious male chorale vocalizations meant to evoke the sinister machinations of Moscow. At least these musical exoticizings of Eastern Bloc evil match the lack of sophistication in America’s cultural awareness of foreign lands and peoples.

As he shuttles between East and West on the S-Bahn, Donovan just happens to see three German citizens gunned down in the Death Strip as they try to climb the Wall. Newman cranks out some mild musical outrage for this conveniently viewed atrocity.

On coming back home to New York and its cozy suburbs, Donovan again just happens to catch sight through his train’s window of a group of Americans kids gleefully jumping over chain-link fences separating backyards in one of the outer boroughs. They are not gunned down by pistol-packing Neighborhood Watchmen. Newman’s music for this culminating cue for Donovan’s return to the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave is entitled “Homecoming.” It begins yet again with that hackneyed unison, but the monotone is this time broken not by an ersatz KGB choir but the soaring trumpet of the 7th cavalry—the clarion call of freedom.

From these and other incessantly predictably musical interventions we learn that the manipulative cinema of Steven Spielberg is hobbled without Williams’ genius for overcoming cliché with craft. If the movie-goer is going to be incessantly beaten over the head with the simplistically uplifting message that a moral cause is worth fighting for, the music can’t simply play along. It has to lead the charge.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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