Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold Woodsman (John David Washington) are two World War I veterans who are hired by the daughter (Taylor Swift) of a US Senator (Ed Begley) to investigate his strange death. With the help of an old friend (Margot Robbie), the trio become tangled in a web of conspiracy involving secret agents (Michael Shannon, Mike Myers), a legendary Marine general (Robert DeNiro), a business mogul (Rami Malek), and the future of the United States as a democracy...
Reading that plot synopsis is really only scratching at the surface of the complex plot in 'Amsterdam'. Based in part on the real-life Business Plot of 1933, 'Amsterdam' tries to utilise America's tangled past and link it to its current fears of creeping fascism and anti-democratic movements. It's noble stuff, and you can tell that the cast are as committed to the story as they are to the very notion of art battling hatred, but 'Amsterdam' is just too much of a mess for that to come through. You find more often than not in 'Amsterdam' that its attention is in five different places, the tone ping-ponging from one extreme to another in each scene, and the star wattage is off the charts to a point where it becomes distracting. Zoe Saldana, Taylor Swift, and Andrea Riseborough turn up for a couple of scenes, and are generally very good, but you're left wondering what's the point in casting talent as notable as this and not utilising them more.
Sure, it can be fun to have friends on set and let them do a scene or two, but in the wider context, it proves too much and ultimately becomes chaotic. This is a common factor in David O. Russell's work and it normally serves his purposes. 'The Fighter', for example, had plenty of cross-talk scenes involving the extended family of Mickey Ward and Dicky Eklund. 'Three Kings' was all quick-fire witticisms between Clooney, Ice Cube, and Wahlberg. 'American Hustle' was about con artists and grifters, so naturally, the quick-fire editing and the ping-pong focus make sense. Yet, in 'Amsterdam', the story itself becomes tangled up so very easily that you're ultimately just left watching the movie without any firm grasp on what's happening.
Christian Bale plays Berendsen like Peter Falk circa 1976, all crouched over and fumbling, but with a solid heart of gold. John David Washington, for his part, is every bit as forthright and intense as you'd expect, while Margot Robbie gets a rare opportunity to play among equals rather than playing second fiddle or shouldering the whole thing. Rami Malek and Anya Taylor-Joy both act as comedic counterweights, while Robert DeNiro turns up in the last thirty minutes or so after being talked about for the first hour and a half of the movie, but hasn't much in the way of a role to play beyond something ceremonial.
David O. Russell clearly has a lot to say, and after a seven-year gap between this and the so-so 'Joy', it's been stored up for some time. The production design, the music, the costumes; there's a real sense of vibrancy and colour to it that is sometimes neglected in movies set in this time period. After all, it was the time of surrealism and Dadaism, and 'Amsterdam' is trying to reflect that back on screen. Yet while it may work on paper or as a concept, the execution of it fails to connect in a meaningful way.
It's telling that a lot of work - both in movies and on television - is trying to grapple with America's slow drift into fascism by reaching into its past or stretching out to the future, rather than facing it head-on and dealing with it in the present. Sure, there are parallels between the two in 'Amsterdam', yet Russell's script hammers it out so clearly that it loses any impact. FDR is referred to by one character as an "ageing, mentally defective" President much in the same way Fox News frequently refers to Joe Biden, not to mention the barely concealed racism in other characters.
'Amsterdam' has a gluttony of stars, a well-meaning and commendable story and message, but it can't link these two forces together to make it into something tangible or entertaining.