“Art Evokes Thought” in New Star-Studded Antifascist Film

As if right on cue, just as Mussolini’s acolytes win the Italian elections and the January 6 Committee is hot on the heels of Trump’s would-be presidential putsch plotters, Hollywood releases an important new antifascist film that follows in the hobnailed footsteps of Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 anti-Hitler masterpiece The Great Dictator. Writer/director David O. Russell’s Amsterdam is a comedic murder mystery that ties into the real-life conspiracy that threatened to overthrow President Roosevelt and install an unelected strongman in the White House during the Depression.

The two-hour, 14-minute Amsterdam has an intricate plot that may be hard to follow unless viewers pay close attention to the complex storyline. The movie begins as if it’s a quirky period piece, flashing back and forth from New York City in the 1930s to Europe during World War I and the postwar “Lost Generation” of Americans abroad. At first, the film’s vibe is similar to that of a wacky Coen Brothers’ comedy, but all this builds up to Amsterdam making an unexpected left turn that is startlingly timely as contemporary America struggles to maintain its system as a constitutional republic.

In Amsterdam, as WWI rages, unbigoted, half-Jewish, half Catholic, married New York doctor Burt Berendsen (Welsh actor Christian Bale, who played Batman on the big screen three times and appeared in several Russell films, including 2013’s American Hustle), is assigned as the medic to an all-Black unit in France that is smarting from the indignities heaped upon them by the Jim Crow Army. The segregated soldiers are forced to wear French uniforms because racist white U.S. combatants refuse to fight beside African American warriors. (This actually happened to the 369th infantry regiment, the so-called “Harlem Hellfighters”) Their benevolent Caucasian commanding officer, General Bill Meekins (the renowned actor/ environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., whose armful of credits include the 2001-2005 HBO series Six Feet Under) condemns the prejudice heaped upon the Black soldiers.

During the war, Burt becomes fast friends with Harold Woodman (John David Washington, Denzel’s son, star of Spike Lee’s 2018 BlacKkKlansman) and Milton King (standup comic/actor Chris Rock in his first feature film role after being victimized by Will Smith during 2022’s live Oscar telecast). Burt and Harold save each other’s lives in combat, but they are badly wounded and recuperate in a French hospital under the care of a beautiful nurse, Valerie Voze (Australian actress Margot Robbie, who co-starred in Bombshell, the takedown of sexual harassment at FOX News, and portrayed Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, both released in 2019). Amsterdam doesn’t glorify armed conflict and its graphic surgery scenes are reminiscent of the 1970 antiwar comedy M*A*S*H.

Burt is disfigured by the war – he loses an eye (his subsequent glass eye has a penchant for popping/falling out throughout the movie) and has to wear a back brace that plays a fateful, ironic role in this story, which your erstwhile plot spoiler averse reviewer won’t reveal. Milton seems to fully recover and falls in love with Valerie, who collects the bullets and shrapnel that wounds her patients and transforms them into avant-garde art that has a Man Ray-like panache. Proclaiming a “pact” of eternal friendship, Burt, Milton and Valerie become an inseparable trio and they relocate to the film’s titular city, where the Bohemian expats lead a free, joyous, happy-go-lucky life in Amsterdam, and the film celebrates interracial romance and friendship.

Ultimately the threesome is drawn home to America, where Harold becomes an attorney and Burt specializes in pioneering plastic surgery for disfigured veterans wounded during WWI. Milton works with Harold as his legal assistant. Burt’s character seems suggested by New Zealand Dr. Harold Gillies (Harold Woodman’s first name may be derived from him), a battlefield surgeon during WWI chronicled in Lindsey Fitzharris’ new book The Facemaker. In showing the disfigurement of those maimed by combat, Russell enhances Amsterdam’s “war-is-hell” sensibility.

After much going back and forth in time establishing its characters, Amsterdam’s story takes its sharp left turn in early 1930s New York, where and when most of the elaborate plot is set. Until this point Amsterdam has seemed to be mostly a zany, madcap comedy and while there’s lots of humor to be sure, there’s much more to this film than just laughs. In NYC Liz Meekins (singer Taylor Swift in a big screen outing) informs Burt and Harold that her father, General Meekins, has met with foul play before he could address a gala held by WWI veterans.

Along with Milton, Valerie, too, becomes enmeshed in this murder mystery, which leads to a fascist conspiracy to overthrow FDR and the New Deal. Although Russell’s complex screenplay has subplots and romantic implications, including Burt’s blossoming relationship with the Black autopsy nurse Irma St. Clair (Zoe Saldaña), the politically-minded viewer is likely to be most interested in the fact-based intrigue surrounding coup plotters intent on toppling President Roosevelt.

With sacks full of greenbacks, the would-be putschists seek to lure General Gil Dillenbeck (two-time Oscar winner for 1974’s The Godfather, Part II and 1980’s Raging Bull, Robert De Niro) into becoming the coup d’etat’s figurehead. At the same time, Burt, Harold and Valerie try to convince this national hero to stand up for democracy instead in his scheduled speech at the upcoming veterans’ reunion that the murdered General Meekins had originally been slated to make. Like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which culminated with what is arguably the greatest speech ever made in an English language political picture, Amsterdam too builds up to what General Dillenbeck will tell the vets, whom the rightwing corporatist coup-sters hope the general will incite and recruit to serve as Mussolini-like shock troops for their insurrection against the Roosevelt administration.

An opening title in Amsterdam contends: “A lot of this really happened.” Indeed, although this is clearly a work of fiction, General Dillenbeck is clearly based on Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, who, awarded 16 medals, was the most decorated Marine ever when he died. In 1934 Butler testified before a House Committee that was arguably a precursor to the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol about the so-called “Business Plot” by industrialists seeking to impose, with his help, a fascist dictatorship in America. During the end credit sequence, a clip of Butler discussing the conspiracy is played in a split screen with De Niro reciting similar words.

The colossal portrait of General George Washington that hangs on the wall of the hall of the veterans’ gala in Amsterdam is identical to the huge image of Washington displayed amidst flags bearing swastikas at the infamous Feb. 20, 1939 German American Bund rally at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden on Washington’s birthday.

Amsterdam also includes what appears to be archival footage of “the Bonus Army” of thousands of desperate WWI veterans who, along with their families, besieged Washington in 1932, demanding early cash redemption of their WWI service bonus certificates, as the Depression ravaged America. Before the vets were forcibly dispersed by the U.S. military they had once served, Major General Butler gave a fiery speech to the Bonus Army, insisting: “Makes me so damn mad, a whole lot of people speak of you as tramps. By God, they didn’t speak of you as tramps in 1917 and ’18.”

Similar to Chaplin’s grand finale in The Great Dictator, General Dillenbeck’s oration towards the end of Amsterdam is likewise consequential. I won’t disclose plot spoilers and ruin the surprise for you, but this is an excerpt from another remarkable speech Major General Butler delivered in 1933 that is also resonant with Amsterdam’s antiwar sentiment: “War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses… I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”

De Niro’s star turn as a character based on Butler is especially delicious, given his bluntly outspoken opposition to ex-Prez Trump. During the 2016 presidential campaign De Niro called The Donald: “blatantly stupid. He’s a punk. He’s a dog. He’s a pig. A con. A bullshit artist. A mutt who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” The actor noted for his tough guy roles in movies like 1990’s Goodfellas and 1995’s Casino added: “I’d like to punch him in the face”. De Niro co-starred in David O. Russell’s 2012 Silver Linings Playbook and 2015’s Joy.

In addition to the thesps already mentioned, Amsterdam’s star-studded cast includes: Michael Shannon (star of 2011’s Take Shelter who is depicting Senator Joseph McCarthy in an upcoming biopic) and Mike Myers (1992’s Wayne’s World and the Austin Powers movies) as birdwatchers-cum-intelligence agents; Anya Taylor-Joy, star of the Netflix series about a chess prodigy, The Queen’s Gambit; Oscar-winner Rami Malek (the Mr. Robot USA Network TV series; 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody; 2021’s No Time to Die); Timothy Olyphant (star of the FX series Justified); etc.

I attended Amsterdam’s professional premiere at El Capitan, Disney’s flagship theater on Hollywood Boulevard’s fabled “Walk of Fame” and in the invitation-only industry audience were actors: Ron Perlman (2004’s Hellboy), Judd Hirsch (who played Alex in the long-running Taxi sitcom) and producer/director Davis Guggenheim, who won an Academy Award for 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth and told me he’s now making a documentary about Michael J. Fox. After the screening Jeremy Kagan (director of the best movie made about the New Left, 1975’s Katherine, and 1987’s Conspiracy: The Trial of the Chicago 8) interviewed Amsterdam’s screenwriter/director David O. Russell and star Christian Bale, who spoke in his Native Welsh accent.

Despite the fact that Amsterdam is being released amidst much talk about the role that the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, Roger Stone, allegedly played in Trump’s failed insurrection and as the January 6 Committee prepares to hold another live televised congressional hearing, and as Italian neofascists are poised to take power in Rome, et al, Russell revealed that he began making Amsterdam “six years” ago, before Trump became president. But in the tradition of the brilliant film historian Siegfried Kracauer, who contended in his landmark 1947 book From Caligari to Hitler that Germany’s post-WWI procession of screen monsters was a projection and prediction of Nazism, Russell’s ruminating on the overthrow of America’s electoral system might be an example of ideas floating about in the ether that percolate in the collective unconscious and artists give form to.

Regarding Amsterdam’s anxiety about democracy, Kagan told CounterPunch in an email: “What was interesting is that they had not realized as they pursued this story how contemporary it would become.  Art ahead of reality!  A true warning from the past.”

Kagan, who is a tenured professor at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, added: “David’s originality as a filmmaker mixes a variety of genres from comedy to mystery and love story, weaving them all together in some unexpected ways that give the viewer an amazing ride. As he says in the screenplay ‘art evokes thought,’ and this movie certainly does that.  I also know that making this film was for him continuously rewarding and exciting and you can feel the camaraderie on screen…”

Bale won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in Russell’s 2010 The Fighter and was Oscar-nommed for Russell’s 2013 American Hustle, a sharp critique of capitalism. During the post-screening Q&A Bale was described as an “intuitive” actor who gets “immersed” in his roles. Bale said he wasn’t “a Method actor” and didn’t attend acting school, just “two classes at the YWCA.” However, he did admit to being very involved with Amsterdam’s editing, often joining three-time Oscar nominee editor Jay Cassidy, who has cut a number of Russell films, in the editing room where Bale shared suggestions. During the onstage interview at El Capitan Bale appeared relaxed, with long hair and a beard, and was casually dressed. He seemed to be in good spirits and spoke easily with members of the audience after the Q&A.

Amsterdam is lots of fun but once it kicks into political high gear, it becomes a must-see movie for fans of films about history, conspiracies and the struggle to save democracy from fascism. Amsterdam theatrically opens on October 7.

Ed Rampell was named after legendary CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow because of his TV exposes of Senator Joe McCarthy. Rampell majored in Cinema at Manhattan’s Hunter College and is an L.A.-based film historian/critic who co-organized the 2017 70th anniversary Blacklist remembrance at the Writers Guild theater in Beverly Hills and was a moderator at 2019’s “Blacklist Exiles in Mexico” filmfest and conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. Rampell co-presented “The Hollywood Ten at 75” film series at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures and is the author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States and co-author of The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.