Cast: Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: David Scarpa
It would be easy to watch All the Money in the World and assume that the story is essentially about the inhumanity and immorality of greed, but I think that would be a mischaracterisation. Although the Getty we see in this film is a tight-fisted miser whose heartless resolve to keep hold of his money while his grandson suffers defies any sense of empathy, I don’t think calling what he does simple greed gets to the heart of what this movie is really about. What this film is ultimately asking us to consider is what exactly it is that money does to a person and it chooses as its subject Getty, who at the time was not only the richest man in the world, he was the richest man in the history of the world. How does possessing that kind of wealth affect the way one thinks and sees the world? What kind of person does one have to become in order to manage the power, status, and exposure that come with it? How does someone with ‘all the money in the world’ value everything else in their life? Those are just some of the questions at the heart of this story.
Based on his biography Painfully Rich, the film focuses on one specific chapter in the life of J. Paul Getty (Kevin Spacey Christopher Plummer), the kidnapping of his grandson John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) in 1973. A ransom of $17 million is set, an amount that the 16-year-old’s mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) cannot even begin to pay. Having never asked her former father-in-law for a thing since divorcing his son John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), her only hope is to appeal to Getty for the ransom. Getty, despite being fully aware that the amount is mere pocket change to a man of his calibre, flat out refuses to pay so much as a penny. He does however employ Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg), a former CIA operative and one of Getty’s top negotiators, to accompany Gail and investigate the matter to help secure his grandson’s release. As the media picks up on the story and the whole matter turns into a sensation, Getty III is kept hostage in a remote location in Italy where his precarious situation gets worse with each passing day.
In his portrayal of Getty, made all the more remarkable with the knowledge that he had mere days to prepare and play the role, Plummer holds nothing back. He is utterly ruthless and repugnant in his refusal to pay the ransom, but with just enough humanity that we can see where his pitiless, cold-hearted mind is coming from. There is a cruel, business-like logic to Getty’s decision as he argues that if he were to pay the full ransom without question, it would set a precedent that would make himself and possibly his family even more vulnerable. That doesn’t mean Getty is coming from a place of regard or nobility though, far from it. It comes from the unfeeling outlook he has accrued from having built his fortune. To him money is not money, it is power and influence. It is an extension of who he is and what he represents and it affects every deal, every relationship, and every interaction in his life. Getty’s understanding of the world, of people and of society has been shaped by his wealth and it has instilled within him this mind-set that everyone else is constantly after what it his. If he gives away as much as an inch, it will open the floodgates. Thus he guards his riches and status the way a dragon guards its treasure.
It’s for that exact reason that Getty was taken aback years before the kidnapping when Gail left her husband and walked away with the kids and nothing else. Having long believed that anybody who interacts with him is always working some angle or holding some agenda and is always trying to get something from him, it is a mystery to Getty in a way that is perfectly obvious to the rest of us how this woman could possibly walk away from his empire with no conditions save to be left alone with her children. Because Getty is the better known character and the meatier role in the film, it’s easy to overlook the stellar work Williams delivers as the frustrated, desperate mother trying to rescue her son. She exhibits a remarkable degree of restraint in her dealings with the icy Getty that is only just able to contain her clear loathing of the man, knowing full well that scolding and pleading with him will get her nowhere and that he must be handled tactically. It is a balance that Williams pulls off wonderfully, creating a character whom we entirely believe will do anything to save her son, including making a deal with the most greedy, ruthless businessman alive.
Scott has shown before that he can make a story as cinematic as anybody else, but here, apart from a couple of elaborate set-pieces, his directing style is restrained, perhaps in order to draw more focus on the actors and allow them to carry the story. In the hands of Plummer, Williams, and a couple of others (like Duris who is very good as one of the kidnappers) the story works well. Wahlberg is the weak link, playing the former CIA operative in a performance that is competent and nothing else. He says his lines and delivers his reactions well enough, but ultimately his character is a nonentity who fails to leave a lasting impression. The film also suffers from a monotonous middle act that plays some of the same beats a little too often and the balance between believable realism and Hollywood fantasy gets a little uneven towards the end with the way that the film places Gail and Fletcher in a precarious situation that they probably got nowhere near in real life (I had the same issue with the car chase at the end of Argo). Still All the Money in the World is all in all a solid film that’s well worth the watch for the fascinating character studies of Gail and Getty and for the intriguing insights offered about money, power, and compassion.