Inspired by real events, this is a thriller. Director Ridley Scott has his foot on the accelerator but you don’t feel his heavy directorial hand on the film. Scott films are usually known for big special effects, tricky camera work, heavy tonal music and a grand cinematic ride. He uses none of those techniques in this film, and that serves the story and the viewer well. Ridley Scott is in the top filmmakers of his or any generation; he has the firepower to light-up the screen visually and cinematic stroke to tell larger than life stories on a giant scale. He also has a fine touch to guide stories to reveal themselves through deepening characters and plots that keep the viewer intrigued and waiting to see what is around the next corner.
In 1973, J. Paul Getty was said to be not only the richest man in the world at the time, but the richest man in the history of the world. When his grandson was kidnapped and held for ransom, he declined to pay, citing his vulnerable financial situation. Asked what he needed to improve his financial status, Getty replied, “More.”
The film is as much about Getty the man as it is about his grandson’s kidnapping. To understand the precarious ransom negotiations you have to understand the man: how he viewed his wealth and his relationship to his family. Those are key insights to appreciating the film. For a rich guy, you feel rather sorry for him. Since Christmas has just passed the image of Ebenezer Scrooge is still fresh. Getty and Scrooge have a lot in common. The film depicts Getty as rather lonely, kept company by his dogs in his grand homes and vast collection of artwork (some of the art seems to have been purchased from questionable sources). Ironically, Getty appeared to have transferred his wealth to a charitable foundation to protect it from taxes, although according to the film, it was only after his death that his wealth was used for charitable purposes, and his art given to a museum baring his name.
Set aside what you have heard about Scott reshooting large sections of the film to replace Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer. I cannot even imagine anyone other than Plummer in this role. He is J. Paul Getty. The role fits him like one of his finely tailored suits. As Getty claims to love his family, he really loves his thought of a bloodline, although he might wish to take his wealth with him rather than to part with any of it. Plummer came in for nine days of reshoots, which is incredible considering how much of the film deals with the older Getty. Scott, in an interview, said that Plummer did not view any of Spacey’s work, what you see on the screen was totally Plummer’s interpretation of the role.
Michelle Williams is terrific in the role of Gail Harris, the former daughter-in-law of the elder Getty, who gives up claim to the Getty fortune in her divorce in order to get custody of her children. When confronted with her son’s kidnapping, she has to ask Getty for the ransom as she has no money of her own. Getty finally agrees to provide the ransom, but only after consulting his tax lawyers, and only providing part of the money; his drug addicted son must borrow the remainder from his father at an agreed upon interest rate. In return, Gail was led to believe that she would have to give up parental rights to all the children. In the film, she was presented with a letter to this effect, but in reality this was not really true, it was reported that the father did not want custody of his children.
Williams has a less flashy role than Plummer but she undergoes the greatest character transition. She emerges from the docile mother to go head to head with Getty and his army of lawyers and provides the lifeline to her son in the five-month ordeal. She gives a gutsy performance without delving into sentiment or hysterics; her fear and uncertainty is channeled into strength. The film depicts Gail as playing a central role in the negotiations, with Getty and the kidnappers, and in delivering the money and finding her son. Remember, this film is a dramatic adaptation of facts, massaging reality with defining solid character stories. There is no doubt that Gail Harris was devoted to securing her son’s return so fudging of facts in return for a stronger, more defined character, is fine for the purposes of the film.
The story is the thing here, but it is truly an actor’s film. There are many fine performances in the film including Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris and Timothy Hutton. Scott usually gets finely crafted performances in his film because he provides the environment and support for actors to flourish. Scott takes great care in prepping his films, especially by drawing storyboards himself, so he sees the film in much the same way that Hitchcock did before a single frame of film is exposed. I suspect this vision allows him to focus attention on his actors on the set instead of focusing on composition and other technical aspects.
All the Money in the World probably will not be Scott’s most memorable film, it certainly won’t break any box office records. The theater I saw it in only had a sprinkling of an audience. The story is compelling, although even if you remember 1973, the kidnapping is vaguely familiar. While it concerned the world’s richest family, this was decades before social media, and it happened in Italy, not America. The world had changed in 45 years. If it happened today there would be wall-to-wall media coverage. What hasn’t changed is the desire to accumulate massive wealth and the desire by some to get part of it. Not to reveal the film’s ending but there’s a Rosebud sort of moment. All the money in the world does not buy immortality or salvation. But it can make for good cinema.