Exploring history can be fun, even if it doesn’t always make sense.
Beginning during the First World War, Amsterdam tells the story of Burt Berendson and Harold Woodman (Christian Bale and John David Washington), two veterans who bonded on the field of battle. Their trio become complete when Burt and Harry meet Valerie (Margot Robbie), a striking nurse who immediately takes a liking to them. Escaping to Amsterdam, the three form an impenetrable friendship that brings life to their broken souls. However, when they return to America, the three find themselves embroiled in one of the most unbelieveable (and true) secret plots in American history.
Directed by David O. Russell, Amsterdam is a fun but uneven film that cries out for justice in an imbalanced world. Featuring surprisingly quirky humor, Russell brings a playfulness to this film that feels different from his other works. With the shifting styles, Russell is undoubtedly having a tonne of fun writing the script. Known for his more grounded humor, there is a eccentricity to Amsterdam that makes it unique. Dreamlike sequences about wish fulfillment, conversations about glass eyes and more feel similar to what one might see from a Coen Brothers film as opposed to anything in his previous repertoire. Unfortunately, while the wild change in tone is a joyful experiment for Russell, the script feels disjointed and uneven. (In fact, the first and second half of the film almost feel like separate films.) As a result, despite being a ton of fun to watch, Amsterdam feels less memorable than it could have been.
Having said that though, the film is rescued by the sheer strength of its cast. (And it is a loaded cast…) Featuring performances by Rami Malek, Robert DeNiro, Anya Taylor-Joy, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon in supporting roles, Amsterdam comes out swinging with its talent. Of course, the centre of the film are Bale, Washington and Robbie who spin around onscreen with such glee that one can’t help be dazzled by their performances. Although Bale has always been comfortable immersing himself into his characters, his performance as Burt contains a certain silliness that we don’t always see in his work. Held up against Washington, the two have some good chemistry, even if the writing isn’t always in their favour. Having said this though, the true star who brightens up the screen remains Robbie, who absolutely lights up the screen. With each new project, Robbie continues to show her unbelievably ability to charm and Amsterdam is no different. As Valerie, she once again sparkles with energy, breathing life into the script and keeping things moving.
What’s interesting about this bizarre little mystery is the fact that it’s rooted in fact. Without giving anything away, Russell’s tale of murder and mayhem leans into the craziness of history. (In fact, Russell even pairs his film with actual footage during the film’s final credits.) To say anything more would do a disservice to the fun but, suffice to say, the fact that Amsterdam is based on even a fraction of reality makes it worth a viewing.
With a heartbeat of justice, Amsterdam reminds the audience of the great divide between social classes, especially in a segregated world. Set at a time where people are struggling with caring for the ‘imperfect’, issues of race, antisemitism and military veterans are looked down upon with disdain from those of power. As a result, Burt, Valerie and Harry are treated harshly by those of the upper class, viewed as social pariahs due to their physical flaws, psychological issues and race. (At one point, Burt‘s wife even refers to his scars from battle as hideous to look at, as she ponders where the handsome man she once knew has gone.)
In this way, Amsterdam is very much a film about what it means to see value in the broken pieces. This is perhaps best exemplified through Valerie’s artwork as she collects pieces of shrapnel and turns them into pieces of art. Whereas most people refer to her creations as disgusting, she believes them as beautiful depictions of hope. To her, these shards of metal represent the importance of those who exist on the fringes.
With this in mind, Amsterdam wants to explore what it means to ‘follow the right God home’ as multiple characters use their spiritual beliefs to justify their worldviews. Here, Russell highlights the danger of claiming God’s support of one’s own interests, especially if it means that they maintain power. Do they follow a God who justifies their actions or one who points to justice? Is this a God of military might or a God of compassion for the poor? By adapting their vision of God to suit their own interests, these characters justify their actions through spiritual lenses, no matter how toxic they may be.
With a fun and fury, Amsterdam manages to overcome its shortcomings for a night of murderous mayhem. While the script doesn’t always match the talent, Russell’s film is undoubtedly entertaining. But it’s also not necessarily a trip that you may want to make a second time.
Amsterdam is available now On Demand and Blu-ray.