It’s tempting to say that I found David O. Russell’s new movie, “Amsterdam,” a hoot and a half, and I was done. But there is much more to this exuberant film, in substance and in style. It’s a historical fantasy that’s written and acted out like a comic tall tale, but it’s all the more notable for its solid (albeit thin) foundation in reality. It also takes its place in a recent, odd but significant subgenre of film that has sprung up in response to the authoritarian and hateful acts and rhetoric of the Trump era: resistance cinema. It would be easy to scoff at the very notion as a highly selective form of crowd pleaser, if many of these films, including “Amsterdam”, were not among the most emotionally engaged and aesthetically distinctive films of the time. .
International resistance cinema has a venerable and continuous history (as in Jafar Panahi’s “No Bears”); In recent years, prominent American filmmakers, whether or not their work has often had a political dimension, have responded to the rise of the far right and the principles and syndromes associated with it. I’m thinking of films like “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter” by Paul Schrader, “BlacKkKlansman” by Spike Lee, “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” by Eliza Hittman, “The Dead Don’t Die” by Jim Jarmusch, “Frederick Wiseman” Monrovia, Indiana”, “Test Pattern” by Shatara Michelle Ford, “Good Time” by Josh and Benny Safdie, “Notes on an Appearance” by Ricky D’Ambrose, “Don’t Worry Darling” by Olivia Wilde (really), Matt Porterfield Point’s ‘Sollers’, the late Lynn Shelton’s ‘Sword of Trust’ and James Gray’s upcoming ‘Armageddon Time’. I consider Charlie Chaplin to be the primordial figure of resistance cinema – especially with “The Great Dictator” – and this film is the main cinematographic spirit that inhabits “Amsterdam”.
In “Amsterdam”, Russell confronts the so-called real-life Business Plot. In the early days of Franklin Roosevelt’s first administration, a group of executives sought to capitalize on the anger of veterans who had not received the benefits due under his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, in order to install, as adviser-dictator, General Smedley. Butler – who they assumed would make their offer. (Instead, Butler laid out the plot, testifying to Congress about it.) In “Amsterdam,” Russell (who wrote and directed the film) conspiring rosencrantzes and guildensterns, with a lofty goal: he focuses on a fictional trio who stumble upon this plot. then try to thwart it. Russell gives these characters a beautiful backstory to unfold the character traits and bizarre circumstances (both ridiculous and logical) that crystallize their spirit of resistance into determination and action – that turn three insulted and hurt darknesses into protagonists. Of the history.
The delightfully complex story begins in 1933 Manhattan in the form of a whirling whodunit. A plastic surgeon, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), who is also a badly injured veteran of the Great War, practices in Harlem with the self-proclaimed mission of helping veterans with similar scars. He shares the space with a lawyer, Harold Woodman (John David Washington), who is his best friend and also a badly wounded veteran, and who served under him during the Great War. Burt, an Army doctor, has been appointed by honest and fair-minded General Bill Meekins (Ed Begley, Jr.) to succeed a cruel racist as commander of the all-black 369th Regiment, then fighting in France. When Meekins, newly returned from Europe, dies suddenly, his daughter Liz (Taylor Swift) recruits Harold to organize the autopsy. Working with a medical examiner named Irma St. Clair (Zoe Saldaña), Burt concludes that Meekins was murdered; then another body shows up, Burt and Harold are falsely accused of this murder and, in order to clear their names, they need someone from high society to vouch for them. This quest takes them through the high-society Voze family, including Tom (Rami Malek), an ineffective ornithologist with a Kennedy accent, to another general, Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro), Meekins’ best friend and the only person who was aware of Meekins’ activities in Europe prior to his return trip.
The character who, as seen in a series of flashbacks, joins Burt and Harold to complete the wartime trio is Valerie (Margot Robbie), a military nurse and artist who, in a military hospital in France, saves the two men, forges a deep friendship with the two and a romance with Harold, and keeps the shrapnel from both men’s bodies to use in his art work. She brings the men to Amsterdam; there she connects Burt, who has lost an eye, to a master glass-eye craftsman named Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers), who is also a British spy in partnership with Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon), an American. Harold and Valerie (whose background is vague and whose identity is elusive) vow to stay in Amsterdam, as their interracial romance has no hope in the United States. In 1919, Burt returns home to New York and is reunited with his wife, Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough), the daughter of the Park Avenue snobs, the Vandenheuvels, who had ordered the half-Jewish, half-Catholic Burt to go to war to bring back medals at home and thus gain the acceptance of their ensemble. But, when Burt, upon his return to medical practice with his stepfather, insists on treating black veterans, the Vandenheuvels – Beatrice with them – kick him out. Then, in the early twenties, Harold leaves Valerie in Amsterdam and returns to the United States, graduates from Columbia Law School, settles with Burt in Harlem and fulfills his dream of helping veterans in need. In 1933, when Harold and Burt are caught together in the Meekins case, Valerie reappears and joins forces with them to try to solve the murders. In the process, they uncover a conspiracy by American plutocrats to install Dillenbeck as dictator, and they turn to Paul and Henry for help, to dramatically grand effect.
Even a detailed description of the Rube Goldberg-esque plot can’t do justice to the zinging action and overt delight Russell takes in bringing it to life. Jumping back in time, flipping through a trio of voice-overs, peppering the soundtrack with hyperbolic aphorisms, adding fantastical sequences, Russell realizes the tale in performances as delicately nuanced as they are fiercely expressive and, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, conjures images that swirl and twirl; the camera presses under the characters’ chins and watches them cock their heads insolently, glides with sly reflections of discovery, fills the screen with abrupt actions and finely underlined subtleties. The film is full of bliss that manages to be both poignantly serious and dizzyingly inventive, as when Burt, leaving to perform the autopsy while carrying a bouquet for ex-Beatrice, attends to another murder, flees from the killers and the police, and reaches a safe hiding place while grabbing the flowers; or when Burt, resetting Irma’s broken wrist, results in the movie’s most jaw-dropping moment. The dialogue’s literary malice produces an incantatory set of clever poetic refrains, whether in Burt’s studied diction, Harold’s pensive manner, the incisive tone used by Valerie, or the hectic but fiercely serious manner of the assistant and Harold’s companion. -veteran, Milton (Chris Rock), whether it’s challenging someone who “followed the wrong god home” or asserting the dangers posed to two black men by “a dead white man in a box “.
Russell more than fills the film with his high-powered parade of stars, which energizes the proceedings from start to finish. He creates lively, powerful characters – slightly heightened caricatures whose unnaturally emphatic presences suit the air of serendipity that gives the story the eccentric heroes it needs, and gives them the happy endings they deserve. Shannon does comedy with dignity alongside Myers, who lends her fantasy an appropriate gravitas; Rock combines intense self-awareness in substance with unbridled impulsiveness in behavior. Matthias Schoenaerts brings a taut dignity to the role of a detective whose war wounds match Burt’s but whose work brings the two men into conflict. Alessandro Nivola channels James Caan as a cop who cruelly makes up for the beating his non-combatant image takes from flat feet. Anya Taylor-Joy brings a fresh twist to the role of Libby Voze, Tom’s cheerfully arrogant wife, and Riseborough fluctuates almost to vanishing point as a young woman caught between parent and husband.