Friday, April 14, 2023


Film: Amsterdam
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on basement television.

At some point in watching Amsterdam, you are almost certainly going to wonder how in the hell it happened. On the surface, Amsterdam is a film with an incredibly cast, the sort of cast that used to appear in epic films where everyone in Hollywood took a role. I can’t begin to count the Oscar nominations in this group, nor the Oscar nominations to come in future years. And yet the film itself is so flat. If I had to guess, it’s the screenplay where all of this falls apart.

Amsterdam tells a fictionalized version of the Business Plot, a 1933 conspiracy to replace FDR with someone who would be more Nazi-friendly at the top of the U.S. Fortunately, the person tapped to take over, the awesomely-named General Smedley Butler, spilled the plot. Amsterdam wants to tell this story, but it takes a long time getting there and includes a great deal that has nothing to do with it. There’s a veneer of wackiness over the story here, and we spend most of our time with characters who are forced into the center of the story for no clear reason.

Our trio at the center are Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), Harold Woodman (John David Washington), and Valerie Bandenberg (Margot Robbie). Berendsen and Woodman served in the same military unit in World War I, a mixed-race unit under the command of a man named Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr.). Berendsen, who is half-Jewish and therefore somewhat shunned by his Park Avenue in-laws, was the unit’s doctor. The two are badly injured, and end up in the hospital where they are cared for by Valerie. She uses the metal she extracts from patients to create art.

The three become inseparable for a bit, and live in Amsterdam where they help wounded soldiers from the war. Eventually, Burt goes back home to New York for his wife (Andrea Riseborough). Harold, despite being desperately in love with Valerie, also returns home to become a lawyer. Harold and Burt help veterans until they are one day contacted by the daughter of Bill Meekins (Taylor Swift), who has died. She thinks he’s been murdered, and Burt performs an autopsy with a nurse named Irma (Zoe Saldana). The evidence is there, but when they try to tell her, she is killed and the two of them are blamed for her death.

The plot itself is too convoluted to get into with detail, and in a better-written movie, that plot would be fun to unravel. Essentially, Burt and Harold are pushed to contact General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro) to speak at an event for veterans, where a group of powerful businessmen will essentially name him to take over the White House in a fascist-friendly coup. Along the way, we’re going to encounter Chris Rock, Michael Shannon, Anna Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Timothy Olyphant and Mike Meyers. And, of course, we’ll be reunited with Valerie.

There is an attempt to be topical and socially forward here. While a romance between racially different characters is no longer anything controversial outside of the most upsetting philosophies, it was certainly an issue in the 1933 of this film. There’s also a great deal here on the idea of living in a world run by fascists and major corporations. But the film handles none of this well. Harold and Valerie are completely open about their relationship with each other despite that legitimately being a death sentence for a Black man in 1933. But hey, why worry about it for this movie?

Worse, much of the film’s plot simply happens off-screen. When Burt and Harold manage to get Dillenbeck to agree to make a speech at their event, the driving force of the plot—the fact that the police desperately want to arrest them for the murder of Elizabeth Meekins simply disappears. It’s literally gone after a line of dialogue that essentially says that the investigation stopped against them.

Amsterdam is lazy. It has a story it wants to tell, and it seems completely unable to do anything other than tell it. Movies are a visual medium, but Amsterdam insists over and over on telling us instead of showing us.

“Unfocused” feels like a word I’ve used a lot recently, but I don’t know when it’s been more appropriate. If this were a wacky comedy about a found family after the war, with Harold, Burt, and Valerie helping wounded veterans like themselves, there would be a movie there. If this was about the Business Plot and followed the espionage and the conspiracy to drive the U.S. into fascism, there’s a story to be told. Mashing them together, and trying to make it feel like a detective story fails on all fronts.

Think about what you could do with this cast. And then realize that David O. Russell gave us Amsterdam, one of the biggest wastes of potential in the current millennium.

Why to watch Amsterdam: A once-in-a-lifetime cast.
Why not to watch: For this cast, it’s damnably flat.


  1. I only want to see this mainly as a completist of sorts for David O. Russell and that is it as he's definitely become a name that not many people want to work with due to his history of toxic behavior. I knew that story about him giving Christopher Nolan a headlock at a Hollywood party was true but I didn't know that moment he went nuts on Sally Field and made her cry. Man, what a fucking asshole. If I was a filmmaker and he was trying to give me shit. The next thing he will see his himself in a body bag.

    1. It's absolutely not worth your time in my opinion. This is a story that has a great deal of potential--or two stories that have a lot of potential--but don't work together. Worse, neither one is told in full.

  2. This movie was such a nothing burger. It's a shame with a cast like that.

    1. Right.There's so much potential here with this cast and with this story, and all we get was this?

      You have to try to waste this much potential.