Amsterdam is now available to rent or own on all digital platforms.
By Greg Wheeler
David O. Russell is supremely apt at handling big ensembles. He has made a career out of parading the creme de la creme in well-managed narratives that are foremostly engaging but also vivaciously recreate a piece of history. If the latter fails, the very presence of A-listers makes watching them worthwhile.
Amsterdam, unlike his decorated filmography, does not have much to offer even in that capacity. Going through the names, it is quite baffling how Russell managed to botch this. He is not known for precision and focus, at times getting lost in his own imagined world. But with Amsterdam, that is a consistent letdown throughout.
At almost 134 minutes long, this period drama feels tedious and random, as opposed to enigmatic and charming. Perhaps that is what Russell originally envisioned but Amsterdam finished very far off. It is a chaotic end product that simply does not work.
That reality is indeed unfortunate given the astonishing specifics of the tale Amsterdam reenacts. Quite incredulously, the plot revolves around real-world bombshell revelations by late Major General Smedley Butler of the US Marines about a planned coup to install a dictator in the US. President Roosevelt, who was bringing the US out of tough economic conditions after the Great Depression of 1929, became the target of frustrated industrialists.
These powerful men wanted to emulate the examples set by European tyrants like Mussolini and Hitler. Both Italy and Germany saw business booming, even if it was at the cost of human lives. The Committee of the Five, as Amsterdam speculates the group behind the conspiracy, wanted Roosevelt gone and Butler to march on in the White House.
All of that started with three innocent veterans of the First World War being accused of the murder of a bedecked retired General’s daughter they did not commit. Christian Bale (Burt), John David Washington (Harold), and Margot Robbie (Valerie) play the trio and for most parts, are the protagonists. Although Russell claims that Amsterdam is a retelling, one would be inclined not to think that if they go into the film blind without knowing the background of the conspiracy.
The director leaves it too late for the revelation to have a sensationalist impact on the viewer. Instead, he chooses to focus on the trio and how they navigate personal issues and challenges. That creative choice, in hindsight, derails the storytelling and does not infuse any momentum going into the climax for the big reveal.
Amsterdam, in simple terms, lacks showmanship and panache. The fine craftsmanship we come to expect of Russell is missing here. His choices make the experience of watching the film dull and tedious. It is too drawn out for the modern viewer, who has become habituated to YouTube shorts and Netflix. The problem with Amsterdam is that the intimate moments the trio spends together have a contra effect. Those moments come across as self-indulgent and somewhat unnecessary considering what the film is about. The moment we switch to the flashback of the war, Amsterdam starts losing steam. From there on in, the great buildup work until the beginning of the flashback, a comeback is too difficult. Taylor Swift makes an impressionable cameo as Liz Meekins. It was surprising to see her in a major commercial film. But maybe her death came too soon.
Anya Taylor-Joy and Rami Malek play important roles of the Voze couple but are too easily antagonized in the eyes of the audience after such a lukewarm introduction. Russell made it seem like Tom (Malek) was the decrypt mastermind behind the conspiracy; that he was pulling the chains all along but it comes as a compensating attempt to over-sensationalize. That work and change in tone should have come much earlier than the last 10 minutes of the film.
In fact, for Russell to think Amsterdam comes together in those final moments with Bale’s voice over is only wishful thinking and nothing more. It feels like a very empty and cheap attempt to cover up the royal mess in the preceding 122 minutes. There is no putting sand over the unfocused narrative, even if Russel would have got an additional hour to make things right.
In the end, a film billed as the biggest of the year has come up agonizingly short. For all the irrepressible talent that Russell has at his disposal, he manages to curb the impact they could have in a dismal debacle of mismanaged priorities. The director has done the unthinkable by wasting what could have been a highlight of his illustrious career.
I give Amsterdam a D+.