Life & Culture

An A-list cast for new thriller Amsterdam

Director David O. Russell on the starry list of actors he has assembled for his new 1930s film


Christian Bale as Burt, Margot Robbie as Valerie, and John David Washington as Harold in 20th Century Studios' AMSTERDAM. Photo by Merie Weismiller. © 2022 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

It’s been seven years since we’ve seen a film from David O. Russell, the eclectic director of such movies as The Fighter, American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook, and Joy.

Now he’s back with Amsterdam, a comedic thriller with an insanely starry cast that delves into real-life pre-Second World War history, and a time when America itself came under threat from a secret plot to overthrow President Franklin D. Roosevelt and install a dictator in line with the fascist regimes of Mussolini and Hitler.

“We took some recorded history that’s explosive and fascinating,” says Russell. “That’s our secret plutonium.”

Set in 1933, Amsterdam focuses on two ex-soldiers who bonded during the First World War, fighting alongside each other. Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) is a doctor now specialising in cosmetically treating war wounds, who himself wears a glass eye from his own injuries. Then there’s Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), a New York lawyer.

When these two are falsely accused of the murder of the daughter (played in an electric cameo by singer Taylor Swift) of a late senator, so begins an unusual caper that takes in the military, the White House, the art world, and big business.

It also pulls them back into the orbit of one Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie), a nurse they befriended at the end of the war, when they hung out together in Amsterdam, living out the best years of their lives during peacetime.

As Russell puts it, this trio of friends are akin to the core characters in some of his earlier films.
“Whether it’s The Fighter, or Silver Linings, or American Hustle, or Joy, they’re about outsiders who find their way, and find reasons to love life…whatever it is they’re facing. And that’s what the notion of Amsterdam is. What do you love about life and each other that you live for? Everyone makes very specific pacts with each other. They have a friendship pact that’s very specific.”

Russell, whose father was from a Russian-Jewish family and lost many of his relatives in the concentration camps, spent more than six years developing the story. He collaborated closely with Bale, who worked with him on American Hustle and The Fighter (for which he won an Oscar for his performance as troubled boxer Dickie Eklund). “Christian and I were very interested in creating original characters that we would want to hang out with,” he says.

“That he would love to play, and I’d love to be around.”

As the film’s opening title card suggests: “A lot of this really happened.” Albeit in a roundabout way. Bale’s character, for example, was based on Dr George Franklin Shiels, a surgeon who became known as “The Fighting Doctor” for his bravery tending wounded soldiers on the frontline in the Philippine-American War.

Robbie’s character, who also makes art from the shrapnel she pulls from war victims, was partly inspired by such leading female artists of the era as Hannah Höch and Méret Oppenheim, whose father was a German-Jew.

Rather than creating a biopic of any one person, Russell was more interested in fictionalising these figures, placing them into this beautifully realised interwar world, where chaos and possibility are juxtaposed.

“Me and Christian would look at these big pictures from the period, of people partying in huge dance halls, and we’d go, ‘Look at these two people dancing together. I never heard their story.’ I don’t think anybody recorded their story,” he says. “Because a lot of history’s not recorded.”

The actor calls it a process of “sitting in diners, writing on napkins, and being gobsmacked by actual events in history that we’d never heard of”.

Most notably, he’s referring to “the Business Plot”, the real-life planned coup in 1933, when wealthy businessman and bankers plotted to overthrow Roosevelt, fearful that the President’s financial policies were sending the country towards catastrophe, tanking the value of their assets. The plan was to install someone who was more business-friendly.

Courted to lead this group was one Smedley D. Butler, a highly decorated Marine Corps general, who later testified against the plot — a scheme so outlandish many felt it was an elaborate hoax.

In Amsterdam, the Butler equivalent is General Gil Dillenbeck, played by another Russell alumnus, Robert De Niro. “I think the reason that none of us had heard of him, despite him being the most decorated Marine ever, is because he was bold enough to speak truth to power,” says Bale.

“And the powers didn’t like it, and so they just buried him and suppressed him.” Typically, the Method-orientated De Niro dived into extreme character work to play Dillenbeck, investigating everything about Smedley Butler. “Bob is meticulous when he finds a character he loves,” says Russell. “He wants to know everything about him.

"The way the man [Dillenbeck] dresses, the way the man behaved. How did this man become an outsider? This man who was the equivalent of Colin Powell, our greatest general, somehow is in his house, retired, a little bit hiding out, because everybody’s pursuing him.”

Undoubtedly, Amsterdam’s main attraction for most audiences will be the cast, which also includes Anya Taylor-Joy and Rami Malek (as married socialites), Alessandro Nivola and Matthias Schoenaerts (as detectives) and Michael Shannon and an in-disguise Mike Myers (as two intelligence officers).

Myers’s MI6 agent Paul Canterbury has his own real-life basis in British businessman and ornithologist Edgar Chance, an egg collector and cuckoo enthusiast.

Myers, the comic star best known for Wayne’s World and the Austin Powers movies, hasn’t acted in a movie since 2018 Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, but Amsterdam felt close to his heart.

His parents, who both hailed from Liverpool, were Second World War veterans. His mother served in the Royal Air Force, while his father was in the British Army. “The fight against fascism is something I grew up with,” he says. “My parents didn’t say, the Germans attacked. They would say the fascists attacked.”

He calls the film “a great five-ticket ride”, with “a great message” that feels relevant to contemporary life and politics. “We’re at a very interesting time right now. Working people are ordering from a menu that they don’t know the price or the ingredients of. And the Holocaust is at its lowest awareness and the highest scepticism that it exists. You know that is the price that’s on the menu: all authoritarian regimes end in some sort of Holocaust or another.”

It’s certainly not the 64-year-old Russell’s first time tackling the fallout of dictatorships — his 1999 tale Three Kings was set at the tail-end of the first Gulf War, as a group of soldiers go off in search of a Saddam Hussein stash of stolen Iraqi gold.

Yet here, it’s not greed that’s compelling the characters but life and love — especially the friendship between Harold, Burt and Valerie. “That made life worth living for all of them,” says Russell. “When they faced death, they said, ‘Let’s live.’”

This came from another real-life inspiration — Christian Bale’s own grandmother, who survived the Blitz in London.

“[She said] that it was the best time of her life. Because she truly lived for each day, absolutely,” says Bale, whose behind-the-scenes efforts here have seen him rewarded with a first-ever producer credit.

Modestly, though, he defers to his co-creator Russell. “He’s very special. He has his own perspective. It’s what makes great filmmakers fascinating — and he’s one of the greats.”

Amsterdam is on general release in cinemas from today.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive