Not the Business Plot
About two weeks ago, I started getting messages from reporters asking if I had any thoughts about the big upcoming movie about Smedley Butler and the Business Plot.
My first reaction was: Wait, what? When I found out the movie was Amsterdam — the new release by admitted groper David O. Russell, starring basically everyone in Hollywood (and Taylor Swift) — I was even more confused. I’d seen a preview for that! Isn’t it supposed to be some kind of screwball murder mystery about veterans of World War I?
Turns out it is. And, yes, it does feature an extremely bastardized version of something that claims to be — and very, very vaguely resembles — the plot by American industrialists, exposed by Butler in 1934, to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt and end the New Deal.
I went to see it the first night it was out where I live, and — well … it has its moments. Christian Bale is kind of funny. Chris Rock is, weirdly, not. But as a piece of “American history” (as the trailer claims), it is pretty much bullshit. Not because Butler’s allegations were fake, as some reviewers have claimed, but because Russell (and Bale’s, apparently) take on the episode is both just wildly ahistorical, and, for my money, misses the entire point.
I wrote about it in more detail for Slate. The tl;dr:
For me, the main contradiction of Russell’s film is encapsulated in a single, briefly seen piece of wardrobe: the ribbon rack on De Niro’s hanging uniform. Russell’s costume designers meticulously copied Butler’s real-life ribbons—from the baby-blue, star-spangled rectangles that represent his remarkable two Medals of Honor, to his French Ordre de l’Étoile Noire, given after his service in the First World War. But the movie erases what Butler did to earn almost all of those medals and ribbons: a decades-long series of imperialist wars in Latin America and Asia that defined his military career. Far from being an irrelevant detail, that omission goes right to the heart of the filmmakers get wrong about the long-suppressed episode of American history at the movie’s core.
You can read the rest of the piece here. Fair warning: It is riddled with spoilers. Though frankly, given the movie’s performance at the box office so far (it’s apparently such a bomb they should have called it Rotterdam instead, hey-o!), you aren’t likely to see it anyway. Which is a shame! There should be a good movie (or maybe an eight-episode prestige miniseries?) about Smedley Butler, built around or working in the real story of the Business Plot, and what it actually can teach us about today.
Know anyone interested? I’ve got a great piece of IP right here.
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Here are some other things I’ve read this weekend:
Tom Nichols on the real (though, for now, still unlikely) threat of imminent nuclear war
Molly Greene at the Appeal on another maddening miscarriage of justice