A few weeks ago, I made some cupcakes. They were beautifully iced, decorated with sprinkles, and nestled perfectly in multicoloured paper cupcake cases. If I say so myself, they looked fantastic — but when I took a bite, all I was met with was a lukewarm, tasteless, undercooked glop. No matter how nice and aesthetic I made the outside look, it couldn’t hide the fact that the cupcake itself was incomplete. When it comes to the detective movie Amsterdam, I feel much the same.
It’s shot as vividly and stylistically as you’d expect a David O. Russell film to be, and there are moments where the aesthetics of the drama movie very nearly trick you into thinking the film is actually good — but the truth is, it isn’t.
This tentative movie based on a true story has glimpses of potential and plenty of glamour, but it never goes quite as far as you want it to — and despite its bloated runtime, the lack of focus in the film means that even by the end, the story still feels half-baked, under-developed, and unfinished.
At the start, you’re told that “a lot of this actually happened,” as we’re introduced to our charismatic main trio: Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale), Harold Woodsman (John David Washington), and Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie).
By a long shot, Burt Berendsen, who also acts as a narrator, is the best part of this film — he’s a quirky, misfit doctor who dedicates his time to helping fellow WWI veterans through unconventional methods and pioneering reconstructive surgery. It’s the little things Bale does that make this character so compelling: from the way he holds himself to his mannerisms and layers of vulnerability.
His chemistry with Washington and Robbie is undeniable — the sequence showing how they met and their adventures in Amsterdam are by far the best in the film. However, Burt and Harold becoming besties in a two-minute conversation in the trenches feels a bit under-developed, while their introduction to Valerie, a Red Cross nurse who treats them when they’re injured in battle, comes off as a forced attempt to make a 1900s manic-pixie-dream-girl.
I don’t care if Valerie is an artist — plucking shrapnel from the flesh of soldiers, saving them in a little box, and turning them into sculptures isn’t endearing — it’s weird, and deeply creepy.
I’m guessing that the film is entitled Amsterdam because the freedom and happiness the trio felt at that time was in some way transcendent — but really, I think it might be because the parts in Amsterdam are the only coherent bits of the movie, and everything surrounding that sequence and Bale just falls apart by the middle of the film.
Amsterdam is meant to be underpinned by a murder mystery, with Bert and Harold (who met when serving in the armed forces together) being hired to get to the bottom of their former commanding officer’s death, before they end up being framed for the murder of his daughter (who is played by Taylor Swift, for some reason).
For a lot of the movie, we’re convinced that the main big bad is the person who framed Bert and Harold and mowed over Swifty himself. However, this red-herring of a villain is not only completely under-developed but we, the audience, are told he’s the bad guy because he has facial scarring: a lazy and ableist trope that completely counteracts and diminishes the various historical references to the facial injuries and trauma sustained by veterans.
Fifteen years after their exploits in Amsterdam, the trio reunite and end up embroiled in a conspiracy to overthrow the government with a fascist, white supremacist organisation that forcibly sterilizes ethnic minorities. This conspiracy itself is true, and is based on the 1933 Business Plot.
Major General Smedley Butler was offered a large sum of money to become the public face of this organisation and overthrow Roosevelt, but he instead exposed their plan and testified to Congress the following year.
Robert De Niro’s character is based on Major General Smedley Butler — and while he plays this character with empathy, he doesn’t show up until the final act of the movie: meaning that the majority of the film felt like jibberish and an excuse for artsy scenes. It turns out the big bad is Rami Malek, Robbie’s on-screen brother, but as the revelation of his involvement in the conspiracy is reduced to rushed exposition on the side of a stage, there isn’t much of a payoff.
Further to this, the idea of Valerie having an ‘illness’ that was her brother poisoning her, which she then miraculously recovered from, felt a bit less than feasible. Surely, even if she wasn’t sick to start with, fifteen years of poisoning would damage her body? And the idea of her living down the road from Burt and Harold for over a decade but never being seen just feels utterly implausible.
Ultimately, despite strong performances from the likes of Bale and De Niro, the rest of the star-studded cast, which includes Anya Taylor-Joy, Zoe Saldana, and Mike Myers, are so underdeveloped and one-dimensional it feels like they were just brought in as another elaborate set-piece.
Amsterdam is available to watch in cinemas globally now. If you want to learn more about WWI and other veterans from throughout history, check out our guide to the best war movies.
Daring, discombobulated, and disappointing.