Movie Review: All the Money in the World
“All the Money in the World” is based on the real-life 1973 kidnapping and ransom of John Paul Getty III, then the grandson of the world’s richest man.
I had no prior knowledge of what actually happened when kidnappers presumed to be Italian terrorists snatched the 16-year-old prized golden ticket off a dark Roman street and proceeded to demand $17 million in ransom money for his safe return to an emotionally ruptured, hideously-dysfunctional family.
Come to find out later after reading historical accounts of the caper, “All the Money in the World” gets most of the facts right. Unlike many other historical docudramas scripted into a Hollywood screenplay, the film doesn’t overly dramatize these events because — it doesn’t have to. The real story is quite compelling enough.
Credit master filmmaker Ridley Scott, who has given us a motley kaleidoscope of memorable movie silhouettes in the past, including “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Thelma and Louise” (1991), “Gladiator” (2000), and “The Martian” (2015). Based on John Pearson’s book “Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty” published in 1995, Scott delivers yet another thoroughly-engaging saga that’s sure to spark a range of viewer emotions and leave audiences on the edge of their seats.
For Scott and all those who worked on “All the Money in the World,” the finished product which hit theaters on Christmas Day wasn’t just a conventional movie unfolding along a linear timeline. It also included an unexpected last-second crisis beset with controversy testing the very patience of a studio and its financial resources. The studio had to pony up its own sort of payoff to salvage a movie that ultimately would still be marketable to audiences largely turned off by the recent scandals in the news. Film production had wrapped up and the movie was set for release by early Fall (2017). Actor Kevin Spacey had originally been cast in the iconic role-playing the tightfisted J. Paul Getty. However, the revelation of Spacey’s personal sexual harassment escapades posed potential box office catastrophe. So, filmmakers had to scrap nearly one-third of an already finished film and re-shoot all the scenes on the fly at an additional expense of $10 million in production costs. Key actors were brought back to various locations around Italy and England and scenes were re-staged and filmed in only a few week’s time — something of a miracle. Someday perhaps we’ll see and hear the real backstory of how a major motion picture was ultimately rescued from almost certain oblivion by gritty resilience. If Scott isn’t nominated for a “Best Director” Oscar for overcoming this ordeal alone, there is no justice.
We may not ever see Spacey’s discarded scenes playing Getty, but the recasting of stately Christopher Plummer in the role of the avaricious financial baron turns out to be a marvelous stroke of grand fortune. Plummer is absolutely riveting in this role, arguably his best performance ever in a long career spanning six decades on film. Plummer chews every scene he’s in, and spits out anyone who stands in his way, not so much by overplaying his role, but by underselling it with the hint of suggestion. His steely look, his lonely eyes, his dismissive hand gestures, and his intimidating presence alone makes a decisive statement and does much of the talking. Words aren’t necessary to win battles when a slight frown or wave of the hand will suffice. In Plummer as Getty, we see a puzzle of man with many missing pieces. This is a man who possesses everything and yet really has nothing — aside from about $8 billion (in today’s dollars) and a prized collection of rare artworks and priceless antiquities that would later define but a fraction of his vast and complex legacy. “I love collecting objects because objects they are real and they are what they seem,” he says. “People are not what they seem. They disappointment me.”
Upstaging Plummer would seem next to impossible, but Michelle Williams who plays the kidnapped teen heir’s tenacious but emotionally-devastated mother is every bit the miser’s match in each scene, and then some. She married John Paul Getty, Jr., who turned out had none of the business savvy (nor ruthlessness) of his famous rapacious father. Getty, Jr. (in both the movie and in real life) eventually became a hopeless drug addict. An absentee father every bit as negligent as his hard-nosed father, Getty, Jr. played virtually no role in the teen’s upbringing and ransom negotiations. That left the kidnapped boy’s mother isolated, vulnerable, broke, and essentially powerless to do much of anything to free her hostage-son. Proving the most essential human resources aren’t tangible nor valued in dollars, Williams carries the movie from start to finish. In her, we see the heroic counterweight to elder Getty’s mangled priorities. Money doesn’t matter. Only her son and his safe return matters. Billions in assets are trivial.
Getty stubbornly refused to pay the full $17 million in ransom for reasons which are far more complex (and perhaps even justifiable) than one may expect. This is far from an easy and automatic decision as to what exactly to do. Sure, $17 million represents a paltry day’s pay for Getty, a mere crumb in his vast financial empire. However, Getty won’t budge. This steady crescendo of mounting suspense, heightened when the boy’s severed ear is mailed in by kidnappers, leads to an inevitable face-to-face confrontation, the details of which will not be revealed here. In what otherwise is an intriguing film most certainly worthy of seeing, this zenith of steely personalities and clash of beliefs near the film’s climax is both messy and unsatisfying. I was left with a lingering curiosity that was not answered. [SEE FOOTNOTE FOR SPOILER]
My only other criticism of “All the Money in the World” is the cringe worthy miscasting of Mark Wahlberg, the beefcake actor who doesn’t seem right at all for the nuanced role as Getty’s security confidant and eventual accessory to Michelle Williams during the kidnapping ordeal. Wahlberg’s character appears to be mostly useless, providing little tactical nor emotional support to Williams nor anyone else involved in solving the crime. I was surprised to learn afterward that Getty did indeed dispatch a former American intelligence operative to assist with the investigation. His character and scenes add nothing to the story and film. But in fairness, no one could outshine Plummer and Williams in their respective roles.
Also worthy of note is the outstanding supporting performance of Romain Duris, a well-known French actor who plays the role of Cinquinta, a sympathetic Italian kidnapper. Usually, criminals are portrayed as one-dimensional villains. However, Duris manages to go far beyond the typical shallowness and becomes a compassionate steward of the prized boy treasure, with startling similarities to the boy’s own mother. Both are steamrolled by more powerful personalities and forces beyond their control.
“All the Money in the World” receives a very high recommendation. Though slightly flawed, the caper based on a true crime story sustains our suspense for slightly more than two hours. Actors Plummer and Williams are certain to receive the usual accolades for their portrayals of real people. Plummer, in particular, deserves high praise for essentially performing all of his scenes which were re-shot within the time frame it usually takes to film a television commercial.
Ridley Scott has given us an authentic likeness of the people, places, and circumstances which comprised one of the most intriguing kidnapping cases in history. Ultimately, and fortuitously due to real-life scandal and controversy, he’s also created one of the top five movies of the year.
[SPOILER ALERT: SOME DETAILS OF THE PLOT WILL BE REVEALED BELOW]
The film’s tension stems from the escalating conflict between Getty (Plummer) and the heir’s mother (Williams) over whether or not to pay $17 million ransom. Getty has his reasons for not paying — some valid. He’s spent an entire lifetime negotiating with rivals and breaking adversaries in the business world. Nothing, it seems, will change his mind on surrendering to blackmail (which is also a standard policy of some governments when faced with acts of terrorism) — not even the threat of his grandson being murdered by kidnappers. However, very late in the film in the anticipated climactic showdown, the character played by Mark Wahlberg storms onto Getty’s lavish estate and confronts his boss with a tirade of insults. Uncaring and unfeeling, Getty had never budged in any negotiations before. He had no regard for the feelings or opinions of his family (he was married five times). Yet for reasons unexplained — and grossly inconsistent with the persona and actions of Getty to that point — he decides to give in an pay a smaller part of the ransom. Given the nuanced complexities of the dilemma, the audience deserved to know why Getty changed his mind and gave in. Why would Getty do this? Because he was insulted by an employee? This is implausible and mars what is otherwise a very good movie.