A critically lambasted box-office bomb, David O Russell’s latest falls victim to that most difficult of recipes to get right, unless you’re a natural (Wes Anderson): self-conscious quirk. It looks as if he’s going for a mixture in the vein of his earlier hit American Hustle, throwing a starry cast at a very loosely based-on-fact tale – “A lot of this really happened”, Christian Bale’s protagonist tell us at the outset – but where that movie, whatever its faults, maintained a degree of pace and purpose, Amsterdam is simply all over the shop. Even its nondescript, indifferent title suggests a fatal degree of second guessing at some stage, as if realisation set in that a sure-thing (at $80m, someone definitely hoped so) was nothing of the sort.
Amsterdam is not some kind of cinematic atrocity, though. It isn’t awful. It’s just another of those movies from an “auteur” that fails to come together (there have been a lot of them lately, many on Netflix). Which still makes it frequently more interesting than much of the fare that receives all the accolades going and/or does pay its way. Russell’s on the out-and-out reputationally right now, of course, which means, with Hollywood, there are no second chances (right now). Everyone’s known he’s a shocking bastard to work with, ever since easy-going George was roused to a physical altercation with him on Three Kings. Things didn’t get any better, whether it was his tirade against Lily Tomlin during the making of I Heart Huckabees or treatment of Amy Adams on Hustle. Such incidents, par for the course for twenty years, aren’t currently getting a free pass, though, nor is Russell copping a feel of his transgender niece’s breasts.
Notably, much of this stuff was reported at or around the time, suggesting that, unlike many in Hollywood, Russell was sufficiently loathed that no one ever felt much inclined to cover for him. More recently, though, he hasn’t even been finding critical favour. His unfinished Nailed was released under an Alan Smithee moniker as Accidental Love, Joy was considered anything but, and now this. For my part, I found Russell’s work much more interesting before he started having big hits (so pre-The Fighter). Not unlike Darren Aronofsky, in that respect.
Amsterdam isn’t really very complicated, but you never feel as if Russell is keeping his eye on the prize. Rather, he’s expressly intent on wilfully distracting himself at every turn, with look-at-me asides and tics that occasionally land but as frequently don’t; it’s too impressed with itself, which means it isn’t taking the trouble to impress you. It’s also beholden to as subtle statements about politics and race as making Mark Wahlberg drink crude oil in Three Kings. For all that Russell traditionally flourishes indie cred, his signposting couldn’t be more wearily juvenile if he were scripting an Indiana Jones (which is, obviously, not setting out to do anything other than tell a comic book story. Aside from the woked-up Dial of Destiny, anyway).
The factual kernel of the picture relates to the Business Plot (or the Wall Street Pusch/White House Pusch: Wall Street Pusch would have been a better title, actually. Even the working title Canterbury Glass, referencing Bale’s character’s glass eye, would have been an improvement). This amounted to a plan to oust President Roosevelt and install Smedley Butler in a fascist coup (dead Robert De Niro plays Smedley, here named as army veteran Gil Dillenbeck; dead De Niro is fine, about as memorable as anything he’s done in the last twenty years, which is not at all. Footage of the actual Butler is shown testifying at the end).
The committee looking into Smedley’s allegations, while bringing no prosecutions, affirmed “there is no question that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient”. The part that ought to be deemed dubious isn’t so much that such a scheme was contemplated, but rather that, by distinction, Roosevelt – or any elected officially – represented legitimate, just and democratic authority. If indeed the scheme was planned, and if it had come to pass, ultimate control would of course, have been precisely the same. All that changes are the optics.
The part about a will to return to the gold standard may imply a genuine beef on the part of financiers, but anyone of serious weight and mobility would either be allowed to put a scheme into process, without awareness that it was doomed, or do so as one of a number of conceived alternative courses in the political landscape. That’s standard practice, and if, as speculated, JP Morgan was one of the backers, it shakes out similarly to, say, bankers’ interests in the Bolshevik Revolution or conversely Hitler’s Germany. Just as long as there’s still money to be made. While Russell recognises this, he nevertheless rather quaintly subscribes to the idea of a functioning democratic system.
Antony Sutton discusses the plot in his Wall Street Trilogy, noting the story “was promptly smothered by Congress and the establishment press”. He quotes Butler’s rather different specifics in respect of the alleged coup, that Gerald Maguire told Butler they wanted to support the President, having shifted from being against him, and “he is going to go along with us now”. The reasoning for Roosevelt having half a million “super soldiers” (not that sort) on his side was that the President needed more money, and “He has either got to get more money out of us or he has got to change the method of financing the Government, and we are going to see to it that he does not change that method”. The men, then, would be there “to sustain him when others assault him”.
The gist was, it seems, that a newly instituted Secretary of General Affairs would take the weight off the President’s shoulders, making Roosevelt more akin to the French President. That reporting on the hearing was suppressed suggests that, whatever the ins and outs of stratagems, Butler coming forward was NOT one of them. Testimony relating to Wall Street financiers was deleted. John L Spivak stated of the report, “It gave six pages to the threat by Nazi agents operating in this country and eleven pages to the threat by communists. It gave one page to the plot to seize the Government and destroy our democratic system”, so not so unlike the level of analysis Russell gives it. The New York Times decided it was a hoax within several days of coverage beginning, while Time just made shit up. Sutton’s conclusion was that, while Butler may have been prone to flamboyant exaggeration, he was credible, his credibility supported by several other witnesses.
Dillenbeck: What’s more un-American than a dictatorship built by American business?
Russell has representatives from publishing, telecommunications and chemical industries approach Dillenbeck (Sutton notes JP Morgan – banking – DuPont – chemicals – and Remington Arms – fire arms – were involved). Rather as Sutton alludes, though, the proposed fascist coup becomes something almost incidental in Russell’s scheme of things, diluted into a medley of concerns that include forced sterilisation (of African Americans), idealistic fascists – in uniforms, supporting Mussolini and Hitler, as opposed to practical ones borne of business (this despite Dillenbeck professing in his speech “They believe in nothing but making money”) – and more particularly the whacky hijinks of Russell’s main trio. You’re more likely to take away the Swastika topiary or Bale’s glass eye popping out for the umpteenth time than the ramifications of the plot.
So one is left wondering whether Russell picked on the pusch as a token gesture or was actually trying to make a point. In interviews – well, the one I could get through – Russell (I’m assuming, for the sake of this review, that this IS the real Russell) seems entirely full of his main trio and the idea that one’s experiences in life that remind one life is worth living represent one’s “Amsterdam” (ie their blissful period, post-war. Curious, therefore, that it’s sped through in montages/flashbacks, so holds little lustre). This takes in the patented Russell quirk of nonsense art and songs (shrapnel making up tea sets etc).
While searching for some Russell comments, I came across a Collider piece that reads like a parody of the woke-sphere, denouncing Amsterdam as an in-your-face celebration of the director’s crimes against humanity while suggesting Russell devised the unjustly accused male duo (of killing a woman) as surrogates of his own experience (of… fondling a trans woman?) before – hilariously – taking the movie to task for featuring no queer characters. It’s such a warped piece, you’re almost put in a position of wanting to defend Russell through kneejerk disdain.
Russell throws in various oddballs, notably from US Naval Intelligence (Michael Shannon) and MI6 (Mike Myers). That they’re good guys (no, I’m not aping Collider, give me a sec) is suggestive of a world where the security services are indeed positive forces, rather than the ones who collude in ensuring the status quo. There’s an alternative here, though. This was filmed in 2021, presumably in a scenario of Hollywood having been largely eviscerated, and it concerns itself with a plot to oust the rightful President. A stretch? I mean, the director met Biden about a decade ago (perhaps Joe even fondled him). I have to admit, almost anything that has come out of Hollywood since the coof, where there have been suggestions of White Hat input, has felt sketchy at best to me; one could find oneself giving either reading, just as one could, in many cases, impress one’s own idealised interpretation on the movies released before that.
However, I was struck by a scene late in the proceedings where Tom Voze (Rami Malek, seemingly channelling Jeff Goldblum) and his wife Libby (Anya Taylor-Joy) offer Burt Berendson (Bale) a little pick-me-up via an eyedropper. We’re told it’s one of the finest innovations from Zurich – Burt asks to know the chemical compound – and that it removes all pain, all anxiety and provides tremendous energy. Of course, any artificial stimulant of unspecified origin is going to invite certain associations at present, but the subsequent confession by Libby did make me sit up. Namely, that she uses it “When I get together with my sisters at the Vril Society, we hold a séance…” and it “acts as a kind of antennae” and “allows us to communicate with the greater race… from a different galaxy”. Obviously, the surface point is simply that they’re budding Nazis into Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, but the close association of unknown substances inviting a feeling of indomitability and the mere mention of Vril invites further conjecture.
It’s perhaps appropriate that Russell goes on and on about how the movie’s all about letting his cast do different things, because Amsterdam’s definitely a case of the cast leading the horse. Sometimes that pays off. Bale’s performance, all Pacino with a hint of Hoffman, is hugely enjoyable, one of the most sheerly likeable things he’s done (I know, given that his repose is intense, that isn’t exactly saying a lot). Malek too seems to focus in on a sure tone that eludes his director much of the time. Matthias Schoenaerts and particularly Alessandro Nivola as detectives investigating the case are also a lot of fun, the latter a study in density that threatens to take over the movie every time he plods in on his flat feet.
Others fare less well. Chris Rock makes little impression. Andrea Riseborough has been on an ebb ever since her dietician decided she should emulate Jessica Chastain. She’s rather wasted here in both senses, then, although the scene in which her “deviance about my scars” sees her massaging husband Burt’s back as she describes how he “you’re so hideous and grotesque” certainly stands out. Taylor Swift – Anton LeVay’s daughter? – gets runover after little more than a cameo. Timothy Olyphant enjoys layers of makeup as a hitman. Ed Begley Jr plays a corpse.
Myers’ presence – aside from investigating the Committee of Five, which is remarkably similar to his Pentaverate, numerologically – rather emphasises Amsterdam as a knockabout, scattershot wannabe, since he previously popped up in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds doing another English caricature. Zoe Saldaña again has little more than a cameo, but seems to be there to suggest mixed-race relationships at the time had more of a chance than Harold and Valerie’s flight suggests. Russell clearly isn’t forwarding presentism here, but he does seem to be preserving a bubble (he’s also playing things a little too schematically)
Margot Robbie and John David Washington are merely fine, the latter more so, in that Harold Woodman isn’t supposed to be a whacky type; he’s more the straight man of the gang. Robbie’s Valerie, in contrast, is built up with “She was brilliant and nuts, but she was our kind of nuts”. I mean, no. No, not really nuts. Not even manic pixie dream nuts. Robbie seems increasingly propelled beyond her range, which isn’t to say she’s a no-talent or anything, but her Harley Quinn for example, was ALL mangled accent and hot pants, not really anything truly quirky beyond the surface, and Valerie isn’t much of anything either.
Even given its abundant issues, you can’t really write Amsterdam off. It’s grotesquely indulgent, but that very quality means Russell’s never that far from angling something that succeeds in hitting the mark. I particularly enjoyed Tom explaining to Dillenbeck that no, he didn’t kill the walrus whose skin they are discussing. He died of natural causes; “He made smart choices, lived a long and happy life”. Or Nivola’s Hiltz offering an assessment of Burt’s singing (“He’s a little bit flat”). Perhaps this would have worked better, were it half an hour shorter, snappier and with a more defined sense of purpose. As it is, Amsterdam simply falls the wrong side of erratic.