I was starting to think that Ridley Scott had lost the magic touch. He had been making movies with reasonable regularity, but while none of them were completely bad per se, and some were pretty good too, none have been great or even very good for a while. But this was a project of his that I’ve been wanting to watch ever since it came out for its intriguing theme and fascinating real-life premise. I’ve always been a fan of the grittiness he brings to his thrillers, and this seemed like a perfect setup for his skills. Though he is the more acclaimed director, I’ve always been more of a fan consistently of his late elder brother, Tony Scott, whose stylish overtures in movies of this kind did not find a lot of favour with critics. But, in this case, Ridley Scott gets his act spot on.
The setting is Rome in the 1970’s. It opens with a voice-over warning us not to judge these characters too harshly. After all, the super-rich are just different, in the way they approach everything, from you and I. Then it cuts to Rome in 1973 and a fresh-faced young man wandering the streets of a seedier district of the city with seemingly not a care in the world to its relative dangers. Before the thought has time to take hold, the youngster is forced into a van and whisked away. A ransom of 17 million dollars is put forth, but the boys’ mother, Gail Harris (a compelling Michelle Williams) doesn’t have any money. He is, however, John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), the grandson of the richest man in the world, John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer). The kidnappers make their demands, but the rich guy refuses to bite. He loves his grandson dearly (so he says) and yet he believes that paying the ransom would entail similar demands on the rest of his fourteen grandchildren. While on a certain level he may have a point, this obviously doesn’t go down well with Gail, someone who has always put her children above the Gettys’ money. A discerning aside into the family past shows how Gail was ready to give up all rights to alimony from her drug addled husband, Getty’s son, for exclusive rights to her children’s custody. Getty, someone who loves to drive a bargain and come off feeling like he has got the measure of his adversary, is unsettled by this lady. Despite not having to part with any of his fortune in his son’s divorce, he still comes off feeling he has lost out to her. The kidnapping provides him a perfect opportunity to play his cards as he likes them. However, he does send in his premier security agent, a former CIA man, Fletcher (played by Mark Wahlberg), to scope out the negotiations and see what can be done. Before long, Fletcher and Gail team up as they attempt to get to the bottom of the sordid affair. Meanwhile, John Paul Getty III is herded into a dank underground prison by his captors, a bunch of criminals who look haggard and yet menacing. He does however manage to elicit some sympathy and something of a bond from one of them, Cinquanta. But the mechanics of both the denied ransom and the police hot on their trails results in him being moved around, almost like an investment being watered down from its original value, from one place to another. A metaphor which the old guy would have appreciated, I guess. But while Getty casually spends millions on obscure artworks which cannot even be displayed publicly and stands in thrall to stock market ticker tape at his stately looking but gloomy mansion, he doesn’t budge much on the ransom demand. The increasingly desperate Gail and Fletcher are not ready to give up yet though.
The movie is brilliantly shot, recreating the Rome of the 70’s and other places with such deftness and immersive style. It is also a tight screenplay with almost not a single unnecessary scene to pad up the main story. John Paul Getty is shown making deals with the Saudis in 1948 as well as being introduced to his tentative family. His son was someone he hadn’t given much thought to till that point, yet the family’s dire financial situation results in them having to seek succor with him for their future and their four kids. The characters are well established. Gail’s steely resolve is obvious from the start while her husband’s descent into opium and inability to make anything of the position Getty lays out on a platter for him is not much of a surprise. Fletcher is a bit of a hazily drawn person though, with not much input into his mental makeup or his gradual shift into Gail’s life. And the voice-over at the start is spot on. The actions are remarkably ambiguous and apparently cold-hearted or illogical at times, yet to judge them by normal yardsticks is probably a mistake These are people caught up in extraordinary circumstances and linked to extraordinary family members. In fact, the major events in All the Money in the World, which was written by David Scarpa and based on John Pearson’s 1995 book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, are mostly true and in some cases maybe toned down a little from the actual events. The real-life characters who inspired the reel life ones are pretty much accurately portrayed, including the idiosyncrasies of the billionaire grandfather himself. J. Paul Getty, who made his fortune mostly in the oil business, was notoriously tight fisted and became paranoid enough towards his later years to employ a private security firm. As shown in the film, he did have a coin operated pay phone installed in his mansion for guests to use. He was disdainful of his son, Paul’s father John, as a drug addict and was of the opinion that Paul was also following down the same path. The oil crisis of 1973 in fact would have made him rich enough to pay off the ransom with just his daily profits. The characters of Cinquanta, the sympathetic kidnapper who at least did care a little for his prisoner, and Fletcher Chase, seemingly more of a bumbling ex-CIA agent who followed dead end leads for a while in real life, are also rooted in reality.
At the end of the day it’s the performances which can make a film and, while all of the actors have performed well, its Christopher Plummer as John Paul Getty who towers over every scene he is in. This is remarkable considering he was a last-minute addition after Kevin Spacey, the original actor who had shot the scenes, was caught up in the sexual harassment scandal in the wake of #metoo and was removed from the final product despite having wrapped up shooting. Plummer deservingly got nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal here and captures the general arrogance and eventual solitary paranoia of the character amazingly well. A reading of the history of the family and Getty’s heirs makes for a somber account, most of them having come to misery in some form in life or death. A pointer to the vicissitudes of life perhaps and that while money certainly helps, a wholesome life on its own it cannot make.
Ultimately, this movie is worth a watch for any movie lover on account of the fascinating story it unfolds and for the return to top form of Ridley Scott.