We live in a time that’s frankly quite bad. Trust in institutions, trust in each other, and trust in ourselves are all at terrible lows. And who can blame us? The internet is abhorrent. Fascism and white supremacy are on the rise. We live divided and segregated and disconnected from one another and no amount of ink spilled or vocal cords friend yelling wake-up calls to our seemingly downward spiral will magically fix our woes. So perhaps we can quit expecting such exceptional profundity from the conversations, the community organizing, the discourse, and yes, the art that’s produced as a product and reflection of this time we live in. Amsterdam, starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, produced by 20th Century Fox, and directed by a man with a long history of assault and abuse allegations, is one such product of these dismal times that ought to be taken so much less seriously.
Not all art is profound. Just look at the art Valerie (Robbie) makes in this movie. It’s interesting, it’s personal, and it tells a story. But honestly? Not all that special. Neither is Amsterdam. But does that mean it has no value, no positive qualities, or heaven forbid, it actually be enjoyable? When Burt Berendsen (Bale) was shoved off to be a doctor in World War I by his Park Avenue father-in-law, he made a pact with Harold Woodman (Washington). When the two helped each other survive terrible injuries, especially on Burt’s part, they were also saved by Valerie, their nurse in Belgium.
She joined their pact, two became three, Harold and Val fell in love, and the whole group lived gloriously free in Amsterdam for a time. Until Bert felt the call to come home and help his fellow veterans. Their trio fell apart, and more than a decade later, Burt and Harold, who had become a lawyer and Burt’s partner back in New York, were called upon by the daughter (Taylor Swift) of their old general to help solve the mystery of his apparent murder.
Amsterdam is a murder mystery. It’s a fairly obvious one on some levels—which isn’t to say there aren’t some twists, but it’s not a movie interested in suspense or dramatic tension. Rather, it’s focused on two things alone: strong characters, and making obvious that fascism is as bad as it is easy to spot (which is to say, quite). I honestly didn’t even know that Burt was played by Bale until the credits roled because he plays his role so well. He’s a little quirky and entirely sweet. I similarly managed not to recognize Robbie either for at least the first half. Although once I did, it was quite hard to forget given her typecasting as the “smart-talking dame who’s keeping up with the boys” role. She plays it as well as she ever does though, and she and Washington work quite well together romantically and comedically. And whatever was done to de-age these three during large chunks of the movie: very impressive.
The cast is adorned with plenty of A-listers who each play their roles well too, from a smart-talking Chris Rock who manages not to make any inappropriate or cringe-worthy jokes the whole time, Rami Malek playing a character as impossible to read as any he has ever, Anya Taylor-Joy caked in pale makeup and extravagant hairstyles to make her exaggeratingly creepy, Zoe Saldaña in a small but key role that largely services a man’s story but does have a little of its own personality, Robert De Niro as a retired and decorated Marine general exactly as distinguished as you’d expect, and so many others. I’m so sorry to say, Swifties, that while Taylor Swift does fine enough, she remains unimpressive as an actor, seeming to have to try too much harder than everyone else she’s acting against. It’s not distracting, but I don’t see her getting a big Hollywood break here either.
It’s a lot of obvious casting into a lot of straightforward characters. There’s plenty to be endeared by and to laugh at throughout. It’s Mandella Effect-type jokes and other self-aware moments that produce comedy rather than sharp dialogue. The dialogue as a whole is a mess. It’s clunky, it gets weirdly poetic, and the bizarre accents all around distract from the words half the time. But whether the script was attempting to be sincere or not, I ultimately appreciate its meandering and sometimes soporific moments. They feel like they represent, to me, all the ways we can get distracted by things that are innocuous, or tangential, or that simply don’t matter. Because in the end, the murder mystery at hand is just the vehicle for a story about the rise of fascism.
And it’s not meant to be a subtle allegory. It takes place in an obvious time period and involves obvious bad actors with obvious motives and obvious lessons to learn. In a time of hot takes and armchair expertise, I’m absolutely glad to watch a movie that is filled with good actors working through a just-fine plot and a just-fine script. Because in real life, it’s pretty clear who the bad guys are too. It’s pretty clear what forces are working against us and who we should trust and how we should treat and support one another. Sure, like in Amsterdam, there are plenty of moments where it isn’t as clear. But there are far more moments where it’s obvious than not. And so too, like in Amsterdam, it should be just as obvious how to respond and how much easier it is to stand against fascism and evil than we often make it out to be.
You don’t need to be profound to say “fascism is bad and we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t do something about it.” Sometimes, you can just say exactly that. Amsterdam is packed with a great cast who have plenty of opportunities to make you feel glad, make you laugh, and make you think about whether you’re letting the weight of the world and your drive to do good in it stop you from living a good life of your own. It’s by no means a perfect movie and has plenty of forgettable moments, but Amsterdam is certainly entertaining and that’s enough for me.
Amsterdam is playing now in theaters.
Amsterdam is by no means a perfect movie and has plenty of forgettable moments, but Amsterdam is certainly entertaining and that’s enough for me.