‘Amsterdam’ Tosses a Notable Cast Into a Screwball Thriller That Lacks Thrills

When making “Amsterdam,” director David O. Russell forgot the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. It’s why history and true crime tend to make such gripping stories. Russell’s new, crammed ensemble film is a needless fiction inspired by a shocking true event rarely discussed in American history books, much less in school. In 1934 Major General Smedley Butler publicly claimed a cabal of businessmen and right-wing military figures had conspired to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, block the New Deal and install a fascist dictatorship. Historians are still debating whether such a scheme went beyond mere chatter, but an investigative committee concluded such chatter had indeed taken place. So why did Russell decide to merely pluck a superficial detail or two and spin this airless comedy?

The plot in question centers on Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), a World War I veteran and Manhattan doctor with a glass eye. His best friend is Harold Woodman (John David Washington), who fought in the same army regiment which was unique in how it included both Black and Caucasian soldiers. Harold shows up to announce that the general in charge of their regiment has passed. When they go to pay their respects, the general’s daughter, Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), asks if they could perform an autopsy. Burt does find evidence of potential fowl play in the general’s entrails, but another shocker soon arrives when Liz is murdered while crossing a street. And so the two veterans embark on a journey that leads to a fascist plot to overthrow the government and install a popular general, Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro). They also reconnect with another member of their regiment, Milton King (Chris Rock) and the nurse who stole Harold’s heart in Amsterdam during the war, Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). 

This doesn’t even begin to cover all of the famous names on the “Amsterdam” poster. Russell certainly has access to top Hollywood talent, but what’s the point when the screenplay feels so uninspired? It’s as if the director, who has directed some great ensembles before in movies like “Three Kings” and “American Hustle,” mostly concentrated on how to make space for everyone. It’s downright strange how the plot never truly builds or has any layers, even as we do a tour of marquee faces. We get Zoe Saldana as a nurse who might know something about the plot. Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy are a wealthy couple who appear eager to help, but could also be connected to nefarious schemes. Michael Shannon and Mike Myers are respectively American and British agents keeping an eye on everything. Even Timothy Olyphant is around to play a fascist thug.  

What Russell seems to forget is that even in political satire, the point is telling a good story first. “Amsterdam” is obviously meant to be a commentary on our potentially ongoing Trump nightmare, with allusions being made to the dangers of populism and corrupt elites. Yet Russell never really explores what fascism was in the ‘30s, why it became popular as a battering ram by the right-wing against the left, or what is driving the villains of the story aside from being villains. Robert De Niro is sadly wasted on a caricature of the real Smedley Butler, who became an anti-war figure after participating in important (but forgotten) U.S. invasions of Central America and Haiti. Of course there was no room to even fictionalize these details because Russell prefers to spend time with lightweight jokes and unconvincing romance involving Washington, Robbie, Bale and Saldana. Chris Rock was cast to apparently just be there on screen while Andrea Riseborough is good, but also wasted, in playing Burt’s rich wife whose parents look down on the glass-eyed veteran.

The cinematography is another surprising disappointment. It is the work of Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, a multiple Oscar winner for his work with Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Lubezki’s eye is certainly always efficient, yet doesn’t go beyond the usual cliché sepias we get in these period movies. Meanwhile “Swifties” will sit in theaters aghast that their idol gets literally thrown under a car before the first act is even finished. In her few screen minutes, Taylor Swift at least proves she can hold scenes on her own and we wouldn’t mind seeing more of her in other films. Everyone else is as good as we would expect, even as the plot chugs along with monotonous pacing. The stakes are never raised to real intensity and the plotters are reduced to whispering to each other in one room over cigars. Steve Bannon would have gotten bored and left.

When Russell aims for tighter, focused stories like “Silver Linings Playbook,” he can be a filmmaker of excellent energy and visual style. He was also a much keener political commentator with “Three Kings,” an underrated work of visual virtuosity with stinging observations about war. “Amsterdam” feels like the sort of massive project where everyone’s agent fought hard to make sure they received as much screen time as the other big stars. Somewhere along the way the story gets lost in a sluggish haze. We never even get a full explanation for the goofy fascist symbol used by the plotters. During the end credits Russell juxtaposes footage of De Niro and the real Smedley Butler, to show how the fictional characters’ dialogue is close to the real person. Instead of a fulfilling dramatic closing, all this might do is inspire viewers to go read about the real plot, which will prove to be much more entertaining and unnerving.“

Amsterdam” releases Oct. 7 in theaters nationwide.