Directed by: David O. Russell
Premise: Based on true events. Three Americans (Christian Bale, John David Washington, Margot Robbie) meet in France during World War I and become close friends. Years later two of them are framed for murder and while attempting to clear their names they discover a conspiracy.
What Works: David O. Russell’s films are distinguished by their kooky characters and Amsterdam has them in abundance. The actors are given space to do arch, offbeat, and occasionally bizarre things with their characters. The central triangular friendship and especially the romance between John David Washington and Margot Robbie’s characters is likable and gives the movie some human warmth.
What Doesn’t: That central friendship is not enough to hold Amsterdam together. This film is a mess. The action starts with World War I veterans Burt and Harold, played by Christian Bale and John David Washington, framed for murder. The movie sets itself up as a mystery in which these men must elude law enforcement and clear their names. The murder and pursuit of exoneration get completely lost. Even the law enforcement characters in this film seem to forget about it. Instead, Burt and Harold discover a conspiracy and work at unraveling it. Amsterdam is really about the so-called Business Plot, which was a real-life conspiracy by a group of ultrawealthy American oligarchs to incite a coup d’état that would overthrow the Franklin Roosevelt administration and install a business-friendly dictator. That’s a fascinating historical anecdote that has provocative implications for the present moment. Unfortunately, Amsterdam makes a pig’s ear out of this story. The conspiracy plot is sloppy to the point of being incomprehensible. The characters design a public event that will lure the conspiracists out into the open but the trap doesn’t make sense. The film never demonstrates exactly how these men have broken the law and how exposing them will stop the coup. The allegiances of the characters are also unclear but not in a way that enhances the mystery. A wealthy couple initially assists Burt and Harold but in the end they are revealed to be part of the conspiracy. The conspiracists attempt to recruit a Marine Corps general (Robert De Niro) to lead the coup. He gets a speech at the end which ought to be a big dramatic climax but the scene comes off flat due to the lack of build up and the clumsy intercutting between different groups of characters. Amsterdam features a handful of subplots, none of which ever get resolved in a meaningful way. The film’s lack of focus and offbeat characters create an uneven tone, especially near the end, and Amsterdam plays like a Saturday Night Live sketch that has gone off the rails in a bad way.
Bottom Line: Amsterdam is a terrible film made all the worse for squandering a little known but potentially interesting historical anecdote. It’s a sloppy movie with one bad creative choice after another.
Episode: #926 (November 6, 2022)