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Amsterdam

Director: David O Russell (Japan, USA). Year of Release: 2022

New York City, 1933. Opening titles tell us that a lot of what we are about to see actually happened. Burt is in his surgery trying out plastic surgery, and pills that have not yet been fully tested or patented, on vets who are still traumatised and physically damaged by the Great War. In rushes Harold, a black lawyer, who fought in Burt’s regiment. Harold needs his old friend to autopsy a body, but they only have two hours before it is taken away.

The body belongs to Bill Meekins who was the pair’s general in the war, and to whom they remain loyal. Amsterdam has a small sense of class consciousness, but always leaves room for “good” bosses and generals. Meekins’s daughter suspects that he has been poisoned, a fact which is confirmed by the autopsy. Burt and Harold meet up with her but she is pushed in front of a passing carriage, and the killer successfully manages to whip up the crowd to accuse them of her murder.

Flash back to the fag end of the First World War – Burt has been sent by his rich father-in-law, who hopes that he won’t return. He first encounters Harold being stroppy to a redneck sergeant who is re-enacting the Jim Crow laws. Meekins encourages Burt to take charge of the Black brigade, which has so little support from home that they have to wear French uniforms. Bill and Harold make a pact that Bill won’t get Harold killed, and Harold will ensure that Burt won’t be killed in a mutiny.

Burt and Harold are wounded in the trenches, Burt losing an eye. Valerie, a pretty nurse, tends for them, making sure that she keeps the shrapnel that she extracts from their backs. When the authorities try to make her give the shrapnel back, Harold defends her in eloquent French. They soon learn that she’s not French at all, but a US-American Debutante (or the equivalent) who is travelling through Europe, and uses the shrapnel to make abstract art installations.

Harold and Valerie fall in love, and don’t seem at all bothered that Burt always tags along as a gooseberry. The three move to Amsterdam where Valerie introduces them to a couple of spies posing as ornithologists who she happens to know. One of them also runs a glass eye company, which is very useful for the now monocular Burt. The trio enjoys the European parties until Harold returns home to complete his law degree and Valerie suddenly disappears.

All this is fairly gripping, although we’re still not sure where it’s all heading. We return to New York in 1933, where Burt and Harold go on the run, well sort of. Because Burt’s wife is rich and well-connected, the police visit and give them a limited amount of time to prove that Harold really was representing the deceased. They use this time to win the support of reclusive General Dillenbeck who has recently been leading demonstrations of disenfranchised vets.

Almost by accident, they bump into Valerie, who confesses that it was she who told Meekins’s daughter to contact them. Valerie is now largely kept in isolation by her creepy brother and sister-in-law, because of a nervous condition that she has inherited. Nonetheless, helped by some prompting by her brother, she helps Burt and Harold to organise a concert of mainly Black performers to raise money for vets. They convince Dillenbeck to be the keynote speaker.

If you’re finding it hard to understand how all these things hang together, don’t worry. This is in part the point. Amsterdam is not a film that depends on tight plot structure, preferring to ramble along. This works for a while, but the more the film tries to make Serious Comments, the more obvious it becomes that this haplessness really does not fit the seriousness to which it aspires.

Amsterdam is clearly on the right side, and its message – that the super-rich are quite prepared to support Fascism if it protects their business interests – is one for our times. But there are a few too many stage winks telling us that this is not just about the 1930s, but also about Trump’s USA. We hear more than once that History repeats itself. The film doesn’t trust its audience to draw its own political conclusions about the story it is seeing on screen.

The politics on show are also slightly mixed. It is unduly proud that one of its heroes is a Republican general, and although Burt and Harold are both minorities (Burt is half-Jewish and half-Catholic, Harold Black) born to working class parents, they are also by now comfortably middle class – one is a doctor, the other a lawyer. Working class people are only there in the film to be misled by wannabe Fascist demagogues, or to be saved by professionals.

Ultimately, though, Amsterdam’s problem is not its politics, but that it spends too much time (at least 2¼ hours) saying not too much at all. In the opening scenes in Europe, we are driven on by the characters’ frenetic energy. The more it drags on, the less we care what is happening or why. The more we learn about what is actually happening, the easy it is to shrug it all off as being confused and not particularly interesting.

For all this, Amsterdam is a very watchable film, and one which is prepared to confront racism and the totalitarianism of the super rich, even though it is clearly not as good, or as coherent, as it thinks it is. It’s the sort of film you can watch on telly on a Sunday afternoon, particularly if you are able to pop off and make a cup of tea when it starts getting a bit repetitive. If you’re trapped in a cinema, though, it’s just too long and lacks enough depth to justify your time.

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