Now streaming–An all-star cast chews up the scenery in Amsterdam

Review by C.J. Bunce

Amsterdam is a heckuva movie, the kind of send-up of history with an all-star cast that would have almost guaranteed it several Academy Awards only a decade ago.  Fans of any or all of Christian Bale or Margot Robbie or John David Washington or Anya Taylor-Joy or Mike Myers or Michael Shannon or Rami Malek or Zoe Saldana or Robert DeNiro or even Chris Rock or Taylor Swift should get enough of a fix of their favorite actor chewing up the screen (except maybe for fans of Taylor Swift, who should probably get some kind of trigger warning.  Probably.).  Amsterdam at its core is a pretty wind-up toy that audiences will enjoy as it unspins until the very end.  And if you watch it keeping that in mind, you’ll have a good time.

But if you approach Amsterdam as the loose historical adaptation of real events which it also tries to be, you’ll find the fiction is better–or at least more entertaining–than the truth.  It’s a comedy/mystery/thriller minus the mystery and thrills.

The pace of Amsterdam is so jaunty that you’ll think you’re watching something like The Freshman or Goodfellas or Born on the Fourth of July, as it speeds along at a mobster movie clip.  Bad things are happening to good people, a la Catch 22, as we encounter Bale’s Burt Berendsen and Washington’s Harold Woodman, who become war buddies in WWI and make a friendship pact.  Oddly humorous, dark comedy montage scenes show us they get blown-up and bloodied, leading them to a hospital in Belgium where they are treated by a nurse, Robbie’s Valerie Voze, who they befriend and let into the pact, and Harold and Valerie become a couple.  Burt loses an eye and gets a replacement thanks to a pair of Valerie’s unlikely pals–and benefactors–including Mike Myers’ character, who just so happens to have a prosthetic eye company, which is one of several fronts used by him and Michael Shannon’s character for secret government intelligence work.  Some kind of shadow operation keeps everyone friends and presumably everyone is passing the right information around to keep everyone happy.

Burt is a doctor and breaks-up the trio act, returning home to his wife in New York (Andrea Riseborough), who is more about family money and prestige than love (she’s the one who sent him off to enlist).  Post-war life isn’t good to Burt, and when Harold finds out, he enlists Valerie’s help.  It turns out she also is part of New York wealth, heiress to a textile family fortune.  They discuss it, but she says she escaped once and won’t go back.  The next day she is gone.  Years later Harold is a lawyer and back with Burt in New York, with war buddy Chris Rock’s Milton tagging along.

Burt doesn’t have a bad bone in his body and Bale plays that for all it’s worth, along with that missing eye (he also might be doing an impression of Peter Falk’s Columbo).  A patriot, he’s part of a veterans group holding an upcoming gala, and his, Harold, and Milton’s former general (played by Ed Begley, Jr.)–the guy responsible for putting these men all together–is scheduled to be keynote speaker.  Then the general turns up dead.  That’s actually where the story begins.

The way writer-director Russell lays out the tale, there’s not much mystery.  It reads like a play full of actors stepping forward to recite their lines with gusto.  The MacGuffin is the reality part of the story.  Somebody is laying the groundwork for dire, evil, fascist practices that would ultimately snowball and come to light during World War II–they’re trying to sterilize all the non-Aryan races as part of what would become Hitler’s “genetic cleansing” program via a forced sterilization clinic owned by a mysterious organization known as the “Committee of the Five.”  The fun tone and pace of the story is where the tones not unsurprisingly clash, as this reality is a pretty serious matter to be handling in often a very silly, lighthearted manner.  Maybe a decade ago this story might have played better, now in the 2020s with so many failing to learn the lessons of the Holocaust, not so much.

The reality of the drama hits its zenith at the end of the film, with General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert DeNiro, in a role inspired by real-life General Smedley Butler), addressing the veterans’ gala–and the rest of the nation, via radio.  In the credits DeNiro’s speech is aired alongside Butler’s real speech to Congress, an attempt at whistleblowing that he was intimidated to using the veterans’ affairs as part of an overthrow of FDR.  Even after the disclosure the bad guys use their money and influence to avoid jail.

What may surprise audiences in a powerhouse list of Academy Award-winning actors is who upstages whom.  That honor goes to Rami Malek as Tom Vose–Valerie’s brother–who does a great impression of sorts of Howard Hughes or Howard Stark (take your pick).  It also goes to Anya Taylor-Joy as his wife Libby, who actually wins the entire contest even in scenes with DeNiro and Bale.  Tom and Libby aren’t so much Boris and Natasha or Bonnie and Clyde as their own memorable dastardly duo (hence, our win for Villain of the Year).  They alone are worth a re-watch.  Saldana, who plays a nurse who does autopsies and works with Burt, and war buddy Rock, each don’t get as much screentime as the rest of the players, but all get their individual moments to shine.

Amsterdam has the same problems telling its story as the all-star cast-driven movie The Laundromat, and will probably miss some worthy acting nods for it.  It’s also probably David O. Russell’s best work and one of 2022’s best films.  Amsterdam is all about acting and actors.  If that’s what you come for, you’ll likely be happy.  For discerning viewers who can distinguish fact from fantasy, a good time can be had here.  And hopefully the ramifications of the real story can sink in for those that need it.  Amsterdam is now streaming on HBO Max, Vudu, and Prime Video.

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