For a composer so often tarred with the melodramatic brush, it’s important to be reminded why John Williams is as revered as he is. From his early jazzy days, where he was credited as ‘Johnny’ Williams, to his darkly turbulent scores Images and Black Sunday, not to mention exotic textural epics like Memoirs of a Geisha, there’s a lot more to Williams than meets the eye.
His latest score for close friend and collaborator Steven Spielberg, The Post, is a case in point, allowing Williams to unleash a compellingly subdued yet still stirring side of his musical personality. This is of course what the acclaimed movie demands. Based on The Washington Post‘s 1971 battle to post the incriminating Pentagon Papers, classified documents that exposed successive US governments as having lied about the Vietnam War, it’s a noble and gripping salute to the importance of a free press. Blending topicality with hefty star performances from Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, playing publisher Katherine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee, it’s little wonder Spielberg’s movie is firmly in the Oscar spotlight.
Amidst all the movie’s prestige credentials, Williams’ score perhaps risks slipping through the net. As expected, there are no declamatory statements in the manner of E.T., Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park. There are none of the immediately recognisable melodic hooks we associate with the composer. However, it once again highlights Williams’ undervalued skills in scoring dialogue-driven, complex drama, a score that has the unenviable task of working around the nuances of the dialogue while also alluding to the courage of the Post‘s staff.
Much of the score is pre-occupied with a pensive air of tension, plugging the listener into the paranoid atmosphere of 1971 as the Post felt the wrath of the Nixon government bearing down upon them. The opening cue ‘The Papers’ features an atypical electronic undercurrent, thrumming away and gradually picking up choppy strings and brass in a manner that quite brilliantly suggests the whirring motions of a printing press, as well as the furtive movement of the journos compelled to look over their shoulders. The darkly brooding strings of ‘Nixon’s Order’, ‘Setting the Type’, the hypnotically cerebral ‘Scanning the Papers’ (whose piping woodwinds seem on the cusp of some great journalistic revelation) and ‘Deciding to Publish’ perfectly illustrate the threat that was facing the paper, Williams off-setting the darker material with noble horns championing Bradlee and Graham’s resolve.
‘The Presses Roll’ (scheduled at the start of the album, although it appears at the end of the film) introduces the main thematic component, the warmly impassioned theme for Graham herself. As the first-ever female publisher of the Post, Graham was held to a different set of standards and Williams clearly feeds off the tenacity and vitality of Streep’s performance. Further statements in the lushly moving ‘Mother and Daughter’ and the cathartic piano/string wash of the climatic ‘The Court’s Decision and End Credits’ remind us of the social significance of the paper’s decision. Interestingly, Williams also translates Graham’s theme into lounge jazz variants in ‘The Oak Room, 1971’ and ‘Two Martini Lunch’, a reminder that she was a high society figure whose reputation, not to mention her family legacy, rested entirely on the decision to publish.
In recent years a Williams score such as The Post has become increasingly rare. It calls to mind his acclaimed dramatic trio for Oliver Stone, Born on the Fourth of July, JFK and Nixon, balancing a sense of threat with burgeoning warmth, although it doesn’t attain the heights of its predecessors. (It’s also interesting to note how The Post is the fourth Williams score to deal with Nixon’s controversial legacy.)
Nevertheless, over its short length (a mere 40 minutes), Williams packs in the sort of dramatic intuition and instrumental variation that we’ve come to expect from a soundtrack composer of his towering standing. It’s a score that aims not for sentimentality but a purposeful, subtle sense of objectivity, a welcome reminder that his tonal palette (often including those scores written for Spielberg) is more varied than many would like to admit.