Amsterdam – movie review

If the recent See How They Run was a movie for theatre nerds, Amsterdam is a movie for history nerds. This hugely ambitious project from writer-director David O. Russell provided a potted but pointed history of the United States between 1917 and 1935. Along the way, he hits some of the more outrageous historical notes from that time. As an intertitle states (truthfully) at the start of the film, most of this actually happened.

I came into this film knowing little about it, but I’m a self-confessed history nerd. So when the pieces of the story started to come together, I could tick off the references. The Harlem Hellfighters, the surrealist movement, the veterans’ march on Washington, eugenics, and Jim Crow laws are all highlighted. But the main thrust of the film is a somewhat fictionalised version of the Business Plot, a real-life conspiracy to… well, maybe look it up yourself if you don’t want to know the ending. By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about some of the film’s threads, maybe start with the excellent podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class.

Apart from being a film for history nerds, Amsterdam is also a film for film nerds. Russell includes several forays into film history, including direct references to the French New Wave, screwball comedies and film noir.

The plot is largely a framing device for the history. It’s 1934 in New York. Basically lawyer Harold Woodman (John David Washington) accepts a case from Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift). Liz wants to investigate the death of her father, General Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr). To do that, Harold reaches out to his friend Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), a doctor. Both agree to take on the case because they’re veterans and Gen. Meekins was their kindly commanding officer during WWI. Burt conducts an undercover autopsy that suggests Gen. Meekins may have been murdered. They meet up with Liz to discuss the preliminary findings – only for her to be murdered by being pushed into the path of an oncoming car. Worse, at the scene, the murderer (Timothy Olyphant) directly accuses Burt and Harold of being the culprits.

They’re soon visited by police in the form of Detectives Getweiler (Matthias Schoenaerts) and Hiltz (Alessandro Nivola). Hiltz wants to arrest the pair, but Getweiler decides to give them some leeway to try to prove their innocence. A clue leads them to the home of the wealthy Tom Voze (Rami Malek) and his society wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy). At the Voze house however, they discover something – or rather someone – completely unexpected: Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). She was a nurse at a Belgian field hospital who helped Harold and Burt during the war. When it was over, they all moved to Amsterdam, where Harold and Valerie became lovers. The trio were inseparable – until Valerie mysteriously disappeared without trace in 1922. Understandably, her re-appearance 12 years later comes as a shock. Although it seems Valerie might be suffering a range of ailments, she’s determined to help Harold and Burt clear their names.

Russell isn’t known as a director who plays it safe (think Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle). He really swings for the fences here, and mostly succeeds. The one caveat is that he tends to get deep in the weeds in the second act, where he indulges in a lot of dialogue. To be fair, he tries to tie all that together in the third act, but the film still drags a bit in the middle. When it works though – which is most of the time – Amsterdam is brilliant. It also happens to be quirky, insightful and quite charming.

Of course, how could he go wrong with one of the most powerhouse casts assembled in recent memory? Russell regulars Christian Bale and Robert de Niro are back, alongside newcomers like Anya Taylor-Joy and Margot Robbie. This really is one of those movies where a new A-list actor appears every few minutes. The fact someone like Timothy Olyphant is content to play a minor role is credit to the director’s clout. And I haven’t even mentioned Zoe Saldana, Chris Rock, Andrea Riseborough, Mike Myers or Michael Shannon. With such a large cast, it’s not really fair to single anyone out. Suffice to say the acting is uniformly excellent.

Judy Becker’s (Carol) wonderful art deco production design is vividly brought to life by Emmanuel Lubezki’s (The Revenant) honey-tinged cinematography. Daniel Pemberton provides a fine but understated musical accompaniment.

I was completely taken by Amsterdam; though I recognise I’m probably in the minority. Not everyone is a history or film nerd, let alone both. Without historical context, a lot of this film might be obscure or even impenetrable. By any stretch, it’s not a light film (though it’s often very funny). But if you’re interested in seeing a filmmaker at the top of his game making really bold choices, then you really should give this a go.

David Edwards

Other reviews you might enjoy: