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David O. Russell Enlists All The A-Listers To Fight The Good Fight Against The Bastards Of Fascism

Dec 31, 2022

Christian Bale’s Burt Berenstein character says he “left his eye in France” in David O. Russell’s fanciful, murder-mystery/ larger-conspiracy comedic thriller, “Amsterdam,” a movie named for the city where the films lead trio spends their halcyon years, living, loving and laughing together. “France” is probably not as an appealing title, given how “Amsterdam” also works as a stand-in for some of the more wild, raucous, and debaucherous elements of the film, but perhaps it’s more thematically apt given its Euro-centricity and how the earnest movie is essentially about fraternity, equality, and liberty: the Tricolours meaning (hear me out: let’s not forget, France gifted the U.S. the Statue of Liberty). Or at least, that’s one thematic element of a richly layered film and all that it wants to express about America, the state of the world, and tyranny.
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To that end, “Amsterdam” is not really what you think it is. While it’s been described and exhibited in the trailer as a story of trois amis —a doctor, a nurse, and an attorney—who become the prime suspects in a murder in the 1930s, that’s really just the entrée to a much more epic, sprawling and ambitious fable, that’s like a whimsical fairytale about the insidiousness of creeping authoritarianism and stopping a fascistic plot against America. And it’s loosely based on a true story too.
Opinions will vary; Russell’s entertaining movie arguably bites off more than it can chew and does fall apart a little bit in its heavy-handed conclusion. It’s also very quixotic, peripatetic in its narrative, idealistic, romantic, and arguably painfully sincere in its cautionary tale concerns about where the idea of liberty and humanity is headed. It’s an audacious odyssey that buckles under the weight of all its ornate and flights of quirky fancy. But if you’re a cynical optimist that’s disgusted with the rise of despotism, absolutism, rancid lies, revolting white supremacist beliefs but still wants to believe in humanity, hope, and the goodness of people, it might just strike a major chord.
With a byzantine plot that starts in present-day New York (1933), but flashes back to 1917 irregularly, “Amsterdam” centers on three friends who meet in Europe during WWI, the empathetic lieutenant Burt Berendsen (an always excellent Bale), foot soldier Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) and the nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie, who really steals the show and fits into David O. Russell’s repertoire like a glove).
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After the harrowing experiences of war have bonded them in blood, the trio absconds to Amsterdam for untroubled days of bliss, merriment, and ecstasy, but the spiritual blood pact the trio make—to essentially love, care for one another, and never split—is eventually broken when Valerie, the artist of the group vanishes suddenly, leaving her lover Harold when he announces his intentions to go to New York to become a lawyer and fight for Black civil rights.
Told in an unchronological fashion, the movie zigs and zags—one might argue its long flashback telling the origin story of the triumvirate is indulgently too long—but the meat of the story takes place in New York after present-day Harold and Burt have been framed for a murder. The intricacies of the story are borderline convoluted—or at least too involved to fully explain—but in short, the daughter of a recently deceased old war buddy (played by Taylor Swift in a small role) wants an autopsy conducted on her father— the circumstances of his death are dubious and mysterious. While fellow war buddies like Milton King (Chris Rock) warn that a Black dude and a shady, dubiously ethical doctor with one eye are probably not the best people to get mixed up in such business, the pair go ahead with the plea, regardless. Soon, a key figure in this setup is thrown under the bus—literally—and the murder is pegged on Harold and Burt.
With the clock ticking, and brutish New York detectives knocking down their door (Alessandro Nivola, Matthias Schoenaerts)—one of them a former solider, so a little lenient on the boys— Harold and Burt use what goodwill they have not spent and set out to prove their innocence. But what unfolds—a much larger conspiracy in play that involves famously decorated veterans (Robert De Niro), international spies, fascists, and crooked politicians in a plot to undermine America’s government— makes the murder mystery element just look like the tiny tip of the iceberg.
Featuring a massive cast—Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy, in fairly substantial supporting roles, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldaña, and Andrea Riseborough, in smaller ones, “Amsterdam” is splashed up on an extensive ambitious canvass, and it feels like part densely-woven tapestry, part symphony and part collage. And if all that needlepoint embroidery of the larger treachery gets a little elaborate for audiences—one discursive, tangential plot thread featuring a persnickety bird society is amusing but borderline self-indulgent until all the puzzle pieces come together— it’s probably understandable. It’s an unwieldy, ungainly film in spots, to be sure. But Russell certainly wins points with heart, soul, and anyone yearning for the old-fashioned, potentially antiquated ideas of brotherhood, egalitarianism, and community.
Shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, “Amsterdam” at least looks magnificent; its brown, beige, auburn, vintage palette given much text, depth, and of course, restless movement. The filmmaker already loves to move the camera, and with a partner in crime like Lubezki, “Amsterdam” floats, dips, and dives, which fits in a way with its dreamy, allegory-like mood.
The craftsmanship all around is top-shelf stuff; authentically vintage production design by Judy Becker, and lovely costume design by Albert Wolsky and J.R. Hawbaker. The true craft ace in the hole, however, is the wonderful score by Daniel Pemberton that glides with the magical, hopefully, qualities that the movie so desperately wants to convey.
Clearly, an indirect response to the detestable age of Trump, corruption, and bigotry, while “Amsterdam” is circuitously political, its strength and perhaps Achilles heel is how moonstruck and sentimental it is. “Amsterdam,” with all its themes and ideas of kindness, helping out, sticking together, and honoring veterans and heroes, is really something more of a romanticized view of people, compassion, community, and what Americans once stood for—including rebelling against Axis allies in wars where everyone wanted to fight the good fight against the bastards of tyranny and fascism.
In that regard, Amsterdam” is naïve, filled with utopian ideals, and even maybe overly mawkish, especially in that third act where the big speechifying against totalitarianism, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and fear feels way too on the nose and heavy-handed. Yet, if you’re a sucker for humanity, decency, kindness, and the inherent goodness of human beings and hope things might turn around despite the awfulness of today—I know I sure as hell am—its good intentions, and soulful enchantment, might just leave you a little bit swooning, drunk on the ideas of brothers and sisters joining in arms against the old, dusty creeps of privilege, influence, and hoarding power. [B]

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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