REVIEW: ‘Amsterdam’ starts with a bang, ends with a whimper

Bradley Earnshaw, Staff Writer

While films like “Don’t Worry Darling” and “Blonde” have captured most of the anticipation for films in the past month, one that’s slipped through the cracks is David O. Russel’s “Amsterdam.” With a cast consisting of Christian Bale, John David Washington, Margot Robbie, Chris Rock, Robert DeNiro and even names like Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Taylor Swift and Zoe Saldana, how could it go wrong? As viewers will come to see, very quickly.

“Amsterdam” follows two WWI veterans, Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) and Harold Woodman (John David Washington), in the 1930s who are accused of murdering the daughter of their recently deceased former regiment leader. As they work to clear their names, they reunite with Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a former nurse from their time in an army hospital in Europe, who might just have what they need to remove themselves from the suspect list. As they come closer to proving their innocence, they unearth the secrets surrounding the death of their former leader and his daughter as well as information about who’s behind it all.

The first act of this film is, quite frankly, one of the best first acts in recent cinema. We come to learn who the main characters are and how their friendship started. Burt and Harold meet while fighting in the war and get injured by a bomb explosion in battle. They’re both given the same nurse, Valerie, and she helps the two soldiers recover back to health. Her involvement in their recovery is ultimately what brings the group together, and it’s a touching process. The audience grasps the love and care these three friends have for each other through their conversations and expressions towards one another.

If the film maintained the brilliance of its first act all the way through, “Amsterdam” would have been a hit. What makes this first act so good is that we know there’s two murders to be solved, but we get swept up in the magic that is the threesome’s friendship unfolding onscreen. The montages and cinematography through this first act evoke familiar emotions in the viewer. The scale of the story isn’t that large at this point in the film, and while we can see the threads of the story begin to unwind, the film preps the viewer for a detective style unraveling of the plot. While there is a lot of detective work involved, the findings along the way increase the scale of the plot, but not to the film’s benefit.

The main problem with this style of storytelling is that it takes what seemed to be a fun “whodunnit” film in the style of Rian Johnson’s “Knives Out” and turns it into a great conspiracy featuring international espionage and secret societies. This film was so much more fun when there were three people to root for and only two or three to be suspicious of. When the prospects of who’s responsible for it all are revealed, the film gets confusing. The amount of unnecessary tangents that this film goes down just to try and protect the reveal at the end makes a confusing and hard-to-follow third act.

If there was one specific reason that the conspiracy plotline doesn’t fit well with the first act, it would have to be this. A title card at the beginning of the film reads “A Lot Of This Really Happened,” which tells viewers to have a sense of realism while they watch. Conspiracies and secret societies may be a realistic concept, but the suspension of disbelief achieved with the first act falls apart as soon as the true nature of the film is revealed. That sense of companionship and whimsy viewers feel in the beginning slowly fades as it seems that each character wants to clear their name for the sake of themselves instead of the survival of their trifecta. There is no major tonal shift or groundbreaking discovery, just leads that constantly increase the amount of people involved and complicate everything. If everything was done as it was in the first act, there’d be much less to look down on.

There’s plenty to be said about David O. Russel’s direction, as it plays a massive role in the overall viewing experience. There are several shots that stand out thanks to clever lighting and blocking of the actors. For each beautiful shot, though, there’s another three wide angle close ups of people in a circle with jittery cuts between everyone involved. Further on in the film, there are scenes with a larger group of people arranged in a circle arguing with one another. This progression makes it increasingly difficult to keep track of who’s mad at who and what we need to pay attention to as multiple conversations seem to be happening at once. In these large group scenes, there’s little to help the viewers understand what’s being revealed for the first time and what’s common knowledge already.

Despite the amount of negatives in this film, there is a lot to love. Bale’s performance is the standout here. He plays a calm and composed but still a bit eccentric doctor with some brilliant physicality, common for Bale but no less fascinating to see. Washington’s performance is perfect for his character as the more toned down and subtle member of the group. While not exceptional, his work in this film does well to present a believable and likable protagonist. He delivers his lines well and gives a great example of how much acting goes into subtlety and calmness. Other actors like Rami Malek, Robert Deniro and Anya Taylor Joy give strong supporting performances despite their characters being written poorly.

Sadly, Margot Robbie takes the biggest hit in this film. It’s a toss-up between whether or not the script or her performance is at fault. Neither line delivery, facial expressions nor dialogue seem to be in her favor after the first act.

At the end of the day, “Amsterdam” isn’t a film that stands out. It can be bland yet convoluted, pleasing to the eye and nauseating, well-written sometimes and not at others. The highs are high, but the lows are very low. There’s no solid theme and while ambiguity often leads people to their own messages to take from the film, there’s no clear direction towards any revelation. For those who choose to give this film a try, some good advice would be to enjoy the friendship and love between the three main characters. If you focus on that and not on what drags this film down, you’ll leave with a sense of gratitude instead of confusion.