Film Review: The Performances Are the Thing in “Amsterdam”
Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 6th, 2022
Amsterdam (David O. Russell, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.
“A lot of this actually happened.” So reads the tongue-in-cheek opening title card of director David O. Russell’s first feature film in 7 years (his last was the fairly miserable Joy). And it turns out that something like what we see in the movie did, in fact, take place. That would be the time in 1933 when American bankers and industrialists, inspired by fascist movements in Europe, tried to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt and install a retired Marine general, Smedley Butler, as dictator.
Butler didn’t play along, and the plot was foiled. None of the big-time leaders of the would-be coup were ever held accountable. Sound vaguely familiar? Exactly. Such is the setup of Amsterdam, and though Russell loses a good deal of the thread by the end, this cinematic patchwork still proves vivid enough for much of its length.
The first-rate cast certainly helps. Top among them are Christian Bale (Thor: Love and Thunder), John David Washington (Tenet), and Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), with ample support from pop star Taylor Swift, Chris Rock (Spiral), Zoe Saldana (The Adam Project), Anya Taylor-Joy (Emma.), Rami Malek (No Time to Die), and Robert De Niro (The Irishman), among many others. Alternatingly whimsical and serious, as the story goes, they keep Russell’s fractured vision from descending into too much chaos.
At first, all is delightful, in a manic way. The year is 1933 and Bale plays wounded World War I veteran Burt Berendsen, whose medical license has been (somewhat?) suspended for reasons not yet clear to us. So he practices experimental techniques that include manufacturing new pills that will either cure ailments or knock you out, with himself as frequent guinea pig. When he tumbles to the ground, his glass eye just might skitter away.
Burt joins his best friend and fellow veteran Harold Woodman (Washington), an attorney, on a visit to the just-returned corpse of their former general, whose daughter Liz Meekins (Swift) hires them to see if there is foul play. Before they can fully discern what happened, courtesy of pathologist Irma St. Clair (Saldana), an unexpected murder throws them into the midst of a vast conspiracy, the aim of which they don’t yet know. Time for a flashback to 1918 and how Burt and Harold met.
Enter Nurse Valerie (Robbie), who takes care of the two men after they are wounded, and falls in love with Harold, though all three form a ménage à trois of a sort and go to Amsterdam to recuperate. There, they have the best of times (hence the title), an idyll that could never have been lived in the United States, given that Harold is Black.
But where is Valerie in 1933? That will soon become clear, along with the details of the plot against democracy. De Niro appears as General Gil Dillenbeck (a stand-in for Butler), and though he offers commendable gruff bluster, it’s with his arrival that the movie changes gears, and not for the better.
Up until then, writer/director Russell is in full command of the delicate balancing act of whimsy and thrill ride that makes the first part of Amsterdam so enchanting. Though Bale’s 1933 face is a wreck, filled with scars and with that missing eye, the story bounces along with peppy abandon, highlighting serious issues like love, racism, and greed without sacrificing panache. But then the speechifying begins as we learn what the putsch plotters want.
It’s too bad, for all of us steeped in American politics of the last 6 years know exactly what parallels Russell is making, and it’s a shame he loses his nerve and feels the need to underline his points in felt sharpie. Still, his heart is in the right place (even if Russell, the man, is a walking disaster). And the performances, alone—especially the trifecta of Bale, Washington, and Robbie—make this is a film worth cherishing. Keep your eye on them and ignore the muddle that follows.