"Choice matters over need." If you remember one takeaway from David O. Russell's phenomenal latest Amsterdam, it should be this ideal. Along with the opening tagline, set over a black screen, "a lot of this actually happened." Why, you ask? Because Russell's great genius lies in bringing together the dreamworld with the real one, the old with the new, love with death and everything that is funny with a very serious theme -- Fascism. There, we got that out of the way.
If you're not a huge David O. Russell fan, then this film might not turn you into one overnight, because it is everything the director, writer and producer is good at putting on the big screen, times one thousand and on acid. Amsterdam is the already typically frenzied filmmaker's most jam packed, best put together and greatest looking film but it requires a taste for cinema -- because Amsterdam takes the viewer back to a time when cinema existed as the only medium of popular entertainment and thus, held unbelievable powers, as well as great potential.
The story begins in 1933, with Burt Berendsen (played through a wonderful arc by Russell fave Christian Bale) beginning to narrate in v.o. how he went to war, hinting there is more to the initial shots than meets the eye. Berendsen in 1933 New York City is a physician, a WWI veteran whose life mission has become to relieve the suffering of other injured soldiers like himself.
When his wartime buddy and best friend Harold (once again a phenomenal choice in John David Washington, who manages to inhabit eras and characters with such perfect nonchalance) comes to ask him for a favor, involving their old commander in the Army, the duo is drawn into a rabbit's hole of conspiracy, intrigue and murder. At the core of it all is the true premise -- remember what the film opened with? -- of Gen. Smedley Butler, who in 1933 was approached by a group of wealthy businessmen to help them overthrow then president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The real person of Gen. Butler becomes General Gil Dillenbeck in the film, played by a silver haired Robert De Niro. This is De Niro, so he needs no introduction or adjectives to describe him. He's what you've come to expect from De Niro, particularly in a Russell film.
But make no mistake here, Amsterdam is not a man's film -- it actually belongs to the women in it, the many, many, many actresses in it. Women such as Margot Robbie playing the wonderfully charismatic Valerie, or Anya Taylor-Joy as the evil sister in law, or Taylor Swift as the duo's old commander's daughter. Phew, that was a hard one to write but easy to watch. Swift is cool in this film and the girl can act! Also Zoe Saldana, as Irma St. Clair, a pathologist who flirts deliciously with Berendsen over a corpse's autopsy. And Andrea Riseborough, as the nasty, upper crust but also social climbing New Yorker wife of dear Burt, whose family sends him off to war in the hope he'll succumb while in Europe. And the General's wife as well, played by Beth Grant wielding a wooden spoon.
During the war, both Burt and Harold are injured and they are put back together by the captivating Valerie, in Belgium. She uses the shrapnel she removes from the soldiers' bodies to make dadaist art pieces, from collages to tea sets. She dresses phenomenally, this is all the wonderful work of J.R. Hawbaker and Albert Wolsky who serve as costume designers on the film, and is carefree and captivating. A character out of Hemingway's novels, full of charisma and courage. Harold and Valerie begin to fall in love but their biracial relationship cannot exist in the States, still divided by its own apartheid of the times, so the trio, with Burt in tow move to Amsterdam. “The dream repeats itself before it forgets itself,” says Valerie, and then points out that this is the good part.
The three protagonists, in Amsterdam, broken, put back together but none the worse for the wear dance, love, play and sing -- a catchy tune called the "Nonsense Song". We understand that this is the calm before the storm, of course, we know that, and yet what an enjoyable, colorful calm to watch.
Enter a duo of bird watching spies, played by Michael Shannon and Mike Myers, the latter supplying Burt with a glass eye, because he lost his own in the war. If you giggle out loud when you first cast eyes on this duo, you've got it. You're falling into Russell's cinematic web and it is a good thing. A very good thing, because all caution is to the wind by now and the story gets to its central purpose.
But this is as far as I'll take you. You'll have to discover the rest of Amsterdam on your own, sitting in a darkened movie theater and enjoying the film in all its beauty, power and cinematic feel. This is not a film that will make sense on a TV screen and it would be downright sacrilegious to watch it on a computer or a phone. Amsterdam is grand, outrageous, slapstick and tragic, filled with stars and magnificent sets and lavish locations which is what cinema, with a capital "C", from a long gone era was like. Russell feels like the Orson Welles of our time, playing with our imagination and reinventing the 7th art, just because he can.
If you give into the feeling and exquisiteness of the film, you will be rewarded with a once in a lifetime cinematic experience that you'll keep savoring for days, maybe even months, years to come. But remember, this is a movie -- and you'll need to play your own role as a wiling participant in this equation to truly be a part of the adventure.
USA, 2022, 134 mins
Dir/writ: David O. Russell
Prod: David O. Russell, Christian Bale, Matthew Budman, Sarena Cohen, Drake, Sam Hanson, Anthony Katagas, Tracey Landon, Arnon Milchan, Yariv Milchan, Adel Future Nur
Ex Prod: Michael Schaefer
Assoc. Prod: Eliana Adise
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Editor: Jay Cassidy
Music: Daniel Pemberton
Production design: Judy Becker
Costumes: J.R. Hawbaker, Albert Wolsky
Cast: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Anya Taylor-Joy, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Zoe Saldana, with Rami Malek and Robert De Niro
Production Company: 20th Century Studios
Distribution: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures