We only exist in Amsterdam.”

Amsterdam is a 2022 film written and directed by David O. Russell for 20th Century Studios.  It is a period piece/ black comedy with some hard truths and timely political commentary barely obfuscated behind a thin veil. It boasts a tagline that reads, “A lot of this actually happened,” because a lot of it did. Amsterdam features a large ensemble cast starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington. They are joined by Robert De Niro, Andrea Riseborough, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Matthais Schoenaerts, Allesandro Nivolo, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Zoë Saldaña, Timothy Olyphant, Ed Begley Jr, Chris Rock, and Taylor Swift.

It is the “War to End All Wars.” It’s not going very well and doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon, let alone ending all other wars. Cutting-edge technology and the industrial might of nations have converged to create the shell-showered quagmire that is staggered trench warfare. Though the most modern weapons of the day conspire to grind men to meat and blast them to bits, it is the ancient hatred of racism that threatens to undermine cohesion and morale of the US Army on the fields of France. A Black division commanded by General Meekins (Begley Jr.) is being ostracized to the point of having to wear French uniforms and fight with foreign gear they haven’t trained on. Several of the soldiers, led by Harold Woodsman (Washington) and Milton King (Rock) are on the verge of revolt. Into this tense scenario enters Burt Berendsen (Bale), a half-Jewish doctor who is convinced to “man up” and join the fight by the his in-laws. They assure him that going to battle will secure his place in the social scene which will please his wife, Beatrice (Riseborough). Not realizing they’re trying to get rid of him and having no idea what true savagery is going on between or behind the lines, Burt thinks this is a smashing idea.

General Meekins is a right and honorable man in impossible circumstances trying to do the best for those under his command. He is disgusted by the open sewers of racism spewing out of the mouths of his peers and many of his officers but finds a kindred spirit in Burt. He figures Burt’s kindly demeanor and open countenance can diffuse some of the racial animus annihilating the discipline of his men and is pleased when Berendsen and Woodsman strike up a rapport.

Burt convinces Woodsman and King that he won’t abandon them and will do his best to keep them alive. In exchange, Harold agrees to do his best to keep Burt amongst the breathing by keeping his men from shooting him in the back. The two find the arrangement mutually acceptable. However, the war wasn’t a party to their deal and has other plans. It shreds their regiment like a Banksy painting after an auction. Both men get sprayed with shrapnel, their flesh riddled with red-hot fragments. Burt loses an eye, but he doesn’t lose Harold. He keeps his promise and doesn’t let him go.

Removed from the harrowing hellscape of the trench lines, the pair are brought to hospital together. There they discover that true hell is an overburdened hospital staff, undermanned and lacking sufficient quantities of supplies from basics like proper bandages to enough ampoules of morphine desperately needed to dull their screaming patients’ shrieking nerves.

The only diversion from their days of torment is a nurse, Valerie (Robbie). Her insouciant ways and impudent attitudes alienate her from the rest of the staff but endear her to Harold and Burt. She smuggles them painkillers, abrades their scars and assiduously pries the shrapnel from their bodies conscientiously trying to spare them further anguish. She’s quite taken with the pair, going beyond the bounds of her duty on a regular basis. However, she treats all the patients in her wing with a degree of respect and an acknowledgment that these broken men shouldn’t be deprived of their dignity any further, an attitude that seems absent in her overworked medical associates. She saves the shrapnel she removes from the soldiers’ bodies, and though the men don’t mind, when her co-workers find out, they are outraged and disgusted at what they see as Valerie’s shameless, sinful behavior.

That night, Harold and Burt are pleasantly surprised when they discover that Val is both an accomplished forger and a deft pickpocket as she busts the pair out of the hospital ward. She takes them to her small studio in a place where she believes they can be free, the Dutch City of Amsterdam.

Far from the mud-and-blood splattered body horror of the front, Amsterdam is a weightless, carefree dream. In this sanctuary, their physical and mental wounds begin to heal as Val teaches them to spread their wings and see the world through new eyes unburdened by cynicism or clouded by preconceptions. Amsterdam is light and blissful life, and it is there that the war-tossed-trio finds a place to call home.

Val is a talented artist, a member of the burgeoning Dada movement, the core tenants of which are that the aesthetic value of a work does not determine whether it is art or not, rather it is the conscious decision of the artist to declare a work to be art that makes it so. She takes the shrapnel to incorporate it into her sculptures, converting tools of torment into cathartic talismans.

No one there seems to care who they are or what they are doing, which allows Valerie to shine in the anonymity and autonomy that Amsterdam irreverently makes available to her. She has a wide array of artistic collaborators, social contacts, and friends. She calls on two of them for a favor.  Henry Norcross (Shannon) is an American industrialist. Paul Canterbury (Myers) is a British glassmaker. Both are amateur birdwatchers with a new theory that has put them at odds with the American Ornithologist’s Union. That doesn’t concern her; Burt needs a new eye, and Canterbury can provide one. He does and offers Berendsen a lifetime supply, but there’s a catch: He doesn’t mind doing this favor, but someday he’s going to come to the three and ask a favor in return.

Harold and Val grow closer as Burt pines for his wife, longing for a promised dance with her he’s lost to time. The bubble bursts for the three when the doctor can’t fight his feelings anymore and decides to return to Beatrice left behind in New York.  Weeks go by without word and Woodsman becomes alarmed, discussing this dilemma with Val. Before he can do anything about it, she disappears at dawn and he wakes alone, resolving to ship back stateside and search for Berendsen.

Woodsman finds Burt and after the war their fortunes wax and wane. Harold returns to Harlem and becomes a lawyer. Dr. Berendsen returns to his practice and becomes a drug addict. He becomes quite proficient in wax applications to conceal his fellow veterans’ scars and facial features but also becomes far too enamored with the morphine he uses to control his pain. His wife and her family want nothing to do with him.  He and Harold join the Bonus Army and are dispersed along with that army, with all that entails. He begins a relationship back in New York with Irma St. Clair (Saldaña), an autopsy nurse.  The pair stumbles along, trying to do the right thing and help other veterans that cross their paths as well as those they fought alongside. Their issue of the day is that they need a keynote speaker for their annual regimental reunion.

Whereas in France the soldier’s racism was a blunt instrument, when Burt returns to New York, he’s reminded of the intricate striations of uniquely American racism at home. With Irma, when confronted by the cops, he can see that Portuguese are better regarded by white people than Black people; with his in-laws, he can see that half-Jews are better thought of than full. 

In the interim, General Meekins has become Senator Meekins. Senator Meekins, that right, honorable man, dies suddenly; surprisingly; suspiciously. His daughter Elizabeth (Swift), contacts Dr. Berendsen and Mr. Washington, Esq. with hopes that they can determine the nature of her father’s death. Irma’s pretty sure the cause of death isn’t natural, though she needs more tests to be conclusive.

Burt and Harold are framed for a murder they didn’t commit while investigating whether a murder was committed. Enemies are at their heels. The Committee for the Sound Dollar is chasing. They’re in the sights of a nefarious cabal of mysterious businessmen, who have an assassin (Olyphant) gunning for them. They’re hounded by a pair of cops, the overzealous Detective Hiltz (Nivola) and the understated, understanding veteran, Detective Getwiller (Schoenaerts ), who is one of Berendsen’s patients and relies on him for painkillers. Before they go on the run, Beatrice gives them a name they can use, that of the ultra-wealthy Voze family. Tom Voze (Malek) is an impossibly rich man and could easily put in a word to the authorities for the beleaguered pair. He won’t do it. However, he’s certain that Woodsman and Berendsen can find their keynote speaker if they can just talk to General Dillenbeck (De Niro), the most decorated serviceman of his day, who could also surely clear their names. The pair met and spoke to him when they were in the Bonus Army and are veterans in good standing. Voze assumes that Dillenbeck will feel obligated to help them.

Will the General see them? Will he remember or acknowledge their service? Can he help them with their mystery? Can Harold and Burt get him to be their main draw for the reunion night? Who were those guys in the cabal with the matching rings and matching threats? Why would anyone want to kill the honest and kind Senator Meekins? Who is trying to frame the Jewish junkie and the Black lawyer? Will Burt ever get that dream dance with his wife?

The breakout star of this movie is John David Washington. He’s able to match intensity with Christian Bale and emote beat for beat in his scenes with Margot Robbie. It also helps that he’s ridiculously handsome. It’s notable that though they tear up Bale, they only give him a few scars on his jaw and side of his face. In scenes with very talented actors, he’s able to set a pace he finds most efficacious and allows him to react in his own efficient manner.

Christian Bale’s Dr. Burt Berendsen is his version of Detective Columbo with a Jew-fro. He’s a rumpled, incisive, addicted, half-blind, half-Jew trying to get to the bottom of a murder or a few. With just one or two more questions, he’ll do it, too.

Margot Robbie’s Valerie is really worth the price of admission. Her multifaceted, multilingual character is dressed to the nines and turns every scene she’s in catty-corner until people see things her way. She shows that making art is for everyone and that the best thing for the worst times is more art, more expression, and more truth.

Rami Malek is absurdly unctuous in his role as Tom Voze. He openly takes a stand on nothing at first. Instead of helping Harold and Burt, he not-so-subtly pushes the pair in the direction he wants them to go, hoping the two vagabond veterans can do what his machinations can’t. It’s a good performance but one that gives away the farm.

Robert De Niro is a frequent collaborator with David O. Russell. In this instance, he plays a barely concealed historical figure. His upright, uncompromising patriotism is exactly what this country needs at this particular moment. In this parallel to history, De Niro’s character Dillenbeck is unabashedly, unashamedly pro-America and anti-fascist, and it’s glorious.

So here’s the thing. David O. Russell is the award-winning director of Three Kings, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle. He is a director with a vision and a message. This reviewer is a student of history, knew about the Bonus Army, and had a pretty good idea of where this film was going about a third of the way through. As is made very clear in the credits, this movie is an anti-fascist statement, a retelling the very true story of the Business Plot to toss out the American system and General Smedley Butler, who was approached by rich, top-tier assholes and asked to overthrow the federal government run by FDR (Sound familiar?). Most people in America have no idea such a thing happened. We operate on “It can’t happen here.” But it almost did. And it almost did again. And David O. Russell wants you to know about it. Please go see Amsterdam. It’s fun, you’ll enjoy it, and you might learn something.

Amsterdam is in theatres on Friday, October 7th

By Dan Kleiner

Dan Kleiner is a strange visitor from another planet who resides in Brooklyn, New York with two cats and his amazing girlfriend. When not plotting world domination, he spends a great deal of his time watching movies and anime of all sorts, reading comic-books and book-books, studying politics and history and striving for the day when he graduates as a Class A-Weirdo.