In trying to clear their names of murder, two World War I veterans stumble onto a harrowing discovery in the latest film from David O. Russell.
David O. Russell has had consistent success during awards season over the course of the last decade, with Silver Linings Playbook earning Jennifer Lawrence a Best Actress Oscar in 2013 and American Hustle racking up critical praise along with several Academy Award nominations one year later. His newest film, Amsterdam, boasts his biggest cast to date, and despite an air of self-indulgence in the script, the actors and actresses he’s employed make the film watchable from start to finish, as well as its dedication to authenticity through an accurate depiction of the time period in which the film is based.
Amsterdam takes place in New York City circa 1936, where army veteran Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) lives his life repairing facial wounds for soldiers left disfigured after the horrific battles of World War I, where he also met his attorney and best friend Harold Woodman (John David Washington). The two of them plan to attend a veterans gala where US Senator Bill Meekins is meant to speak only to quickly be informed of his sudden death by his daughter, who implores them to commit an autopsy on his body out of concern he was assassinated. Another murder is committed right before they can reveal their results, though, and the witnesses to the incident are quick to blame Burt and Harold for it in addition to Meekins’ death.
Burt and Harold’s quest to clear their names and find the real man responsible for killing Meekins reunites them with their wartime nurse and Harold’s old flame Valerie (Margot Robbie), who is eager to rejoin them in hopes of returning life to what it was when they were stationed and recovering from battle in Amsterdam. But they first must question the late Senator’s associates in New York’s wealthy elite, from neurotic bird enthusiast Tom Voze (Rami Malek) and his wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy) to Paul Canterbury and Henry Norcross (Mike Myers and Michael Shannon, respectively), two spies working undercover as glass eye salesmen, and even a former military general Gil Dillenbeck (Robert de Niro) in order to put the pieces together, but little do they know each connection they make will lead the trio to make a harrowing discovery that threatens to change the course of America.
As aforementioned, Russell has a career’s worth of experience working with huge ensemble casts, and the results here in Amsterdam are no different, as the movie carries some of the best performances of the year. Christian Bale in particular excels with his comedic timing verbally when he sees Meekins for the first time and says, “He was supposed to speak at the Gala tonight!”, further selling the dry and dark style of comedy for which Russell employs in his script.
Bale also adds quirks to the character of Burt, such as when his glass eye crosses with his live one in confusion as he tries to get the facts straight about Tom Voze’s not-so-thrilling story about crimes against his birdwatching league. But Margot Robbie is the heart of the cast; she is given most, if not all, the emotional beats of the story and knocks her role as Valerie out of the park at every turn, whether it’s through conveying genuine longing and humanity in private encounters with Harold, sadness when she learns the tragic fate of a friend, or a nuanced excitement to show Burt and Harold her pursuits in every style of art upon meeting the two.
Amsterdam is also a solid film on a technical level. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography brings a visual naturalism to every scene through its lighting, only to disorient viewers by framing characters at an oblique angle, which amplifies a given character’s confusion on their labyrinthian mystery. Russell’s latest also succeeds through a dedication to authenticity that replicates the look of Depression-era New York City with lavish production and costume design, while Daniel Pemberton’s score provides an intrigue that bubbles under the surface as Burt, Harold and Valerie’s pursuit takes them from one shady socialite after another in strange new places that carry dangerous new secrets waiting to be uncovered.
It’s just a shame that Russell’s worst impulses linger for the entire duration of Amsterdam. The film is packed with flashbacks, voiceover, and dialogue, and so much of it is delivered in such a dry tone and at a rapidly fast pace, to the point where it feels like Russell wants audiences to pay attention to his great writing rather than the story, leaving little room for emotional investment in the characters or stakes. It’s also worth noting that while Burt, Valerie and Harold are on a journey with many twists that come on a natural progression, the final act wears its messages on its sleeve and feels on-the-nose with its grandstanding.
But the massive cast is talented enough to encourage investment on an emotional level themselves, and they’re the reason why the film is compelling from beginning to end. Audiences will be engaged by the life and energy that they give to their characters, marveled by the spellbinding turns in the narrative, and find themselves reflecting on a moment in their past not unlike the time the three leads of this story formed their unbreakable bond. We’ve all had instances like those before, and that’s why any moviegoer with a favorite actor in this loaded ensemble should seek out Amsterdam.