Film Review – Amsterdam
Warning: The following contains minor spoilers
David O. Russell seemingly disappeared from writing and directing feature films for seven years after the release of Joy (2015). He is back with Amsterdam (2022), another film that he has written and directed, and like Joy, it is somewhat based on actual events and people, which is pointed out to the audience in the beginning.
Set mainly in the 1930s, Amsterdam follows the story of a couple of mysterious deaths and attempts to cover up who killed them and why. Christian Bale plays Burt Berendsen, a doctor who suffers from wounds, including a missing eye from World War I, but who continually strives to improve the welfare and treatment of his fellow veterans. During Burt’s service, he made a pact with another soldier, Harold Woodman (John David Washington), who, along with other black soldiers, faced racist attacks by fellow white soldiers. Burt and Harold swore to protect each other, and Burt became one of the commanding officers over this black company of soldiers at the behest of General Bill Meekins (Ed Begley, Jr.). After the company is attacked and gravely injured in France in 1918, Harold and Burt meet a supposed French nurse with interesting tastes, Valerie (Margot Robbie). A strong friendship is formed, and the trio move to Amsterdam. Complicating factors back home lead this trio to go their separate ways, with Harold and Burt returning to New York City, where Harold becomes a lawyer and Burt starts a medical practice with some quasi-ethics.
The mysterious death in question is that of the upstanding General Meekins. Burt is called in by Meekins’ daughter, Liz (Taylor Swift), and her lawyer Harold, believing he did not die of natural causes. Burt and Harold could not have imagined that just investigating the General’s death would also lead to Liz’s untimely death. Sorry, Swifties, Taylor isn’t in the film that long, but it is a much more significant role than I thought she would have based on the trailer. Harold and Burt are immediately targeted as murderers and go on the run, looking for who truly is behind the deaths.
Amsterdam does deal with some heavy material like war, grave war injuries, PTSD, and racist undertones and attacks. It acknowledges the turmoil of the post-war era. What stuck with me is Burt saying that men signed up for the war because they were told that this was the war to end all wars and nothing like it would ever have to happen again. They were misled and witnessed that what was starting in Europe was moving into their lives in the US, lives that had not had time to heal before being thrown into another debacle that would overtake the world. There are events and people in Amsterdam that mirror events and instances in the US since 2016 with the election of Donald Trump. The similarities are inescapable, and had this film come out in 2000 versus now; it would have rang differently with its audience. I would, however, say that this is not the purpose of Amsterdam; it is not some hit piece stoking liberal fears. A person of a different viewpoint than myself may never come to the same conclusions and have a different experience watching the film. David O. Russell at least allows the viewer to take what you will from the film, aside from enjoying a film with a rotating cast of characters.
The characters themselves, along with the actors that portray them, may be one of the main draws to seeing Amsterdam, and they do not disappoint. Many of the actors involved are teased in the trailer, so mentioning them doesn’t necessarily spoil the film, but what parts they play in the overall story may certainly hurt the experience. I wouldn’t say that David O. Russell was using all of these actors just because he could; it made the film exciting and unpredictable in the best way because while certain actors were expected, their roles in the story were not. My unexpected favorite is Mike Myers as Paul Canterbury, who shares one physical characteristic with Burt. Taylor Swift is the only member of the cast that I would say may have been for exposure and to get her fans to see the film, which honestly is just good business. Her role is minor, and her acting skills aren’t going to make or break the film.
As always, Christian Bale rose to the occasion as Burt and understood the assignment. There isn’t a role out there that Bale does not give his all to, and playing Burt is no exception. At the beginning of his adult life, we see the character falling in love with the wrong girl and paying for it by her well-off family seemingly sending him to war, hoping he gets killed. He is smart and observes the world just a bit differently. He knows what being persecuted is like because he is not from a family of means and is also Jewish. This experience bonds him to others like him but in more serious situations, such as Harold. The way that Bale can contort his body to more convincingly portray Burt’s grave back injury from the war and walk like a differently-abled person gives authenticity to his struggles. Burt also is visibly affected by the distant relationship with his beloved wife.
The cherry on top of this film is the camaraderie between the characters portrayed by Bale, Washington, and Robbie. We see the beginnings of the friendship and the love between them, and then seeing them become crime sleuths is quite amusing. David O. Russell’s Amsterdam is an unexpected treat and has become his best film, in my opinion. It has a cast of quirky characters and an array of actors placed into a delightful film somewhat based on a true story. Unexpectedly, it also has heart because of who these main characters are and what they stand for in an unforgiving world.