DirectorDavid O. Russell
Release Date(s)2022 (December 6, 2022)
Studio(s)20th Century Studios (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: D+
Amsterdam marked director David O. Russell’s return to the big screen after a seven-year absence following the release of Joy in 2015. Russell being Russell, the production wasn’t entirely free of chaos, though in this case the pandemic was at least partly to blame. The film was originally announced in early 2020, but between a lengthy pre-production process, casting issues, and COVID-19 precautions, it wasn’t actually released until late 2022. That’s when it finally reached the theatres, and that’s where it ended up dying, since it completely failed to find an audience. To be fair, a big-budget period piece is always a difficult sell these days, especially one that addresses a serious issue while using a quirky style and a whimsically comic tone like Amsterdam does. Russell’s Three Kings had done something similar in 1999 and was moderately successful, but that film had the advantage of striking while the George Clooney iron was still hot. Amsterdam has an extraordinary cast led by Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, but none of them were guarantees of box office success in 2022.
The fact that Amsterdam delivers a message that some people aren’t willing to hear right now certainly didn’t help. Nor does the fact that Russell’s script hides that message within a particularly convoluted narrative structure. Amsterdam was inspired by an otherwise forgotten footnote in American history: The Business Plot of 1933, where a group of wealthy businessmen tried to rope retired General Smedley Butler into staging a fascist coup to overthrow President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, while backed by thousands of World War I veterans. Nothing ever came of it, but Butler did end up testifying to Congress about the plot before the awkwardly named House Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities.
Russell’s story uses those real-life events as a backdrop for a fictional story involving three friends (Bale, Robbie, and Washington) who form a pact together during WWI, and then find themselves unintentionally embroiled in the plot after they all return to New York City a couple of decades later. As the title card that opens the film states, “A lot of this really happened. New York 1933.” That’s true enough, at least in terms of the broad contours of the conspiracy, but most of the characters and the story elements were fabricated by Russell (even Butler has been renamed General Dillenbeck). Yet no amount of fictionalization can change the fact that The Business Plot actually did happen, more or less as it’s presented here.
Whatever issues that actors like George Clooney and Lily Tomlin may have had with Russell over the years, he’s commanded plenty of loyalty from others such as Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Christian Bale, so there was no lack of takers for his latest project. As a result, Amsterdam stars pretty much everybody. Lest you think that’s an exaggeration, here’s a partial list of Russell veterans and newcomers who joined the cast: Bale, Robbie, Washington, Alessandro Nivola, Anya Taylor-Joy, Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, Mike Myers, Taylor Swift, Timothy Olyphant, Zoe Saldana, Rami Malek, Robert De Niro, Ed Begley Jr., Colleen Camp, and Leland Orser (who sadly doesn’t get to perform one of his patented freak-outs). While none of them are necessarily major box office draws at this point in time, they’re all extremely talented actors, and it’s a testament to Russell that they wanted to work with him regardless of any of the controversies that have surrounded his on-set behavior in the past. There’s also a good chance that many of them were attracted to the central message of the film.
Russell may not have completed any other films in the seven years prior to Amsterdam, but he clearly had a lot of ideas percolating in his mind during that span, and recent events doubtless had him thinking about America’s historical flirtations with fascism. Like Charlie Chaplin before him, he decided to create a warning about the dangers posed by a lack of vigilance, using comedy as a vehicle. When Chaplin started shooting The Great Dictator in late 1939, Germany had just invaded Poland, and the United States was remaining neutral over the threat posed by Hitler’s Nazi regime. Chaplin closed the film by staring directly into the camera and offering an earnestly passionate speech in favor of democracy, liberty and the brotherhood of man. Chaplin spent months writing and rewriting that speech to refine it into its final form, and for the first time, he dropped the mask of his Little Tramp persona to deliver it. Interestingly enough, General Butler delivered speeches of his own on the dangers of subverting democracy, some of them right into the camera, and Russell ended up putting some of Butler’s words into the mouth of his stand-in General Dillenbeck (De Niro). In fact, Russell closes the film by showing one of Butler’s speeches side-by-side with De Niro recreating the exact same moment. It’s an open warning about learning from the mistakes of the past.
Amsterdam takes a while to get to that point, though, with many labyrinthine twists and turns along the way, which does end up diluting the message somewhat. It also doesn’t quite have enough energy to maintain the whimsical tone from start to finish. At a leisurely 134 minutes, Amsterdam perhaps could have used some tighter editing to give its complex narrative more momentum, and to help some of the humor land with a bit more force. In the end, it’s an oddly gentle but still pointedly anti-fascist parable that reinforces Chaplin’s warning against authoritarianism of all kinds, and his plea for peace and democracy instead. Amsterdam may have failed to find an audience in 2022, but time may be kind to it, especially since that particular message never seems to go out of style.
Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captured Amsterdam digitally at 4.5K resolution in ARRIRAW format using ARRI ALEXA Mini LF cameras with ARRI Signature Prime lenses. Post-production work was completed as a 4K Digital Intermediate, framed at 2.39:1 for its theatrical release. The resulting image is perfectly resolved, with detailed and highly refined textures on pretty much everything from foreground to background. The clothing displays a wealth of fine detail, but it’s the faces that are truly impressive—and not just with the craggier features of the male characters, either. No, it’s the subtle details in the relatively smooth skin of Robbie, Saldana, and Taylor-Joy that really stands out. It may not always be visible on smaller displays at normal viewing distances, but it’s there, and it does add to overall texture of the film. The High Dynamic Range grade (only HDR10 is included) primarily strengthens the contrast range, instead of exaggerating the colors. Chivo has always been a chameleon, finding the right style for any given film, and he opted to give Amsterdam a warm, golden hue for most of the scenes set during the 1930s, and a cooler. more desaturated look for the WWI flashbacks. There’s still a fair amount of subtle shadings within even the most desaturated of the material, so the Wide Color Gamut of HDR may provide some slight advantages over SDR, but it’s the improved contrast that’s the main benefit. It’s the kind of contrast that enhances the sense of depth and increases apparent detail.
Audio is offered in English Dolby Atmos, English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, French 5.1 Dolby Digital, and Spanish 7.1 Dolby Digital+, with optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles. Amsterdam is a 20th Century Studios production, but it’s a Disney disc, so the Atmos track isn’t free from the usual Disney curse of being mastered at far too low of a level. The good news is that notching the volume back up again doesn’t do any harm in this case. It’s not an especially dynamic mix in the first place, so it doesn’t end up sounding compressed after the volume has been raised. On the other hand, it is a wonderfully immersive mix, with all channels engaged to surround viewers with the ambience of busy streets, music halls, and other environments. The overhead channels are used whenever appropriate to add to the effect, with gulls, doves, and other birds flying over the listening position, or raindrops falling from the ceiling. It’s not necessarily a spectacular mix, but it’s great example of how subtle sounds can be just as effective at providing immersion as explosions or gunfire.
Disney’s 4K Ultra HD release of Amsterdam is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film, a slipcover that matches the artwork on the insert, and a Digital Code on a paper insert tucked inside. It’s branded as an Ultimate Collector’s Edition, but Disney continues to drive any and all meaning out of that phrase, so don’t expect much here. There are no extras on the UHD, and even the Blu-ray only offers a single featurette:
- Welcome to Amsterdam (HD – 15:30)
It’s standard EPK fare that mixes behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with the cast and crew. It does manage to squeeze a decent overview of the production into fifteen minutes, but needless to say, without including very much depth. There are a few interesting tidbits here and there though, like when John David Washington says that Christian Bale disappeared so thoroughly into the role that he felt like he never really got to meet the man until the film wrapped.
Aside from that, there’s not even a trailer. As Collector’s Editions go, that’s far from Ultimate. Fortunately, the video and audio quality are indeed superb. The stylized nature of Lubezki’s cinematography means that it’s not quite as dazzling as other digitally photographed productions like Midsommar, but it’s still a flawless rendition of Chivo and Russell’s intentions for the film. Amsterdam won’t be for all tastes—while that’s always true of Russell’s films, it’s particularly true in this case—but for those who are willing to let themselves get absorbed into its relaxed rhythms, this UHD is unquestionably the best way to have that experience.
- Stephen Bjork