Amsterdam is a solid movie with some important subtext.
Two World War One veterans find themselves wanted for the murder of a late friend’s daughter. But in an effort to get themselves out of the mess, they only embroil themselves further in a conspiracy of global disaster.
Directed by David O. Russell (American Hustle, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook) comes a film bursting at the seams with recognizable faces: Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Zoe Saldana, Robert De Niro, Rami Malek, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Anya-Taylor Joy. Tonnes of them.
Set in the 1930s, we see a world recovering from the Great War, and the briefest of respites, our three protagonists (Washington, Robbie, and Bale) survived the war and formed a keen friendship in the titular city of Amsterdam. But commitments separate them, and their lives become more troublesome.
Amsterdam is a quirky movie. Honestly, not far removed from being a Wes Anderson film. We have a host of characters whose history stretches over fifteen years, but comes to ahead when characters Burt (Bale) and Harold (Washington) as a doctor and lawyer respectively, are asked to do an autopsy on their old regiment’s head officer… who died seemingly under mysterious circumstances. One thing leads to another, and the two need to not only prove their innocence, but also discover what killed their friend, and who was behind it.
The stakes are high for our protagonists, but the film is packed with levity. While a shocking murder early on might startle many, the grisly details of war wounds might avert eyes, as well as the racism inherent of the time, the film continues with a rapidity and good humour (and a surprising amount of singing!). Washington and Bale have good chemistry as a sort of wizened old double-act, with Bale looking and behaving strangely similar to Christopher Lloyd. While Margot Robbie delivers more of her magnetic personality and fiery temperament to cap the trio off. They each get development as characters, with emotional setups and payoffs which all work very well. The film does not slow down, but the direction is mostly clear, even as the story adds more complexities and stakes as it goes on.
There’s also a very strong, and deliberate, subtext to the film, which takes audiences by surprise in the third act. While people are finally adjusting to the pace, we get a rather poignant retelling of history… indeed the kernel of truth inside the story of Amsterdam. The cyclical nature of politics, and the film’s very clear message of being set between the Great War and the Second World War, with the notion that it doesn’t take much to twist a well-meaning society into a cruel and lost one…
Which leads me to the brief mention that this is the best performance from Robert De Niro in a while. There are other subtexts, like the freedom of expression and the attempt to stifling creativity, and the heavy weights of racism and antisemitism. But there is a tone of hope throughout; despite the march of history as we know it, you leave the cinema with a spark of enthusiasm for the characters, their hopes and dreams.
It isn’t a perfect movie, though. There is a scene or two that feels a little over-indulgent, or unnecessary. There are a couple of characters who feel a little short-changed in screen time and as a result, in fully understanding their motivations. There’s also an odd moment of subtitle usage, which really felt like a deliberate hammering home of the more subtle notes of a conspiracy movie for the less lucid audiences at the back row. Also, Chris Rock. His performance definitely… stands out from everyone else’s.
Amsterdam is getting unfairly panned from critics it seems. While that aforementioned kernel of historic truth may bring the ire of those with much more historian clout than I (not hard to do!) to the rest of the film, I still enjoyed it! The film has levity and humour in all the right places, good performances, good pacing, and a final act of relevance to have you leaving the cinema with thoughts to chew on.
Overall, not half bad!