by Vanessa Ullman
Photography courtesy of The New York Times
You might not have heard of J. Paul Getty, but you probably have interacted with one of his everlasting familial legacies; from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, to the well-known photo company Getty Images, to Getty Oil gas stations, his memory is engrained in American culture.
It’s been close to 45 years since the infamous kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s grandson. The baffling story of how the richest man in the world refused to pay the ransom for one of his own was recently brought into the spotlight, retold for a new generation.
All the Money in the World starts off on a light note, with John Paul Getty III, the teenage grandson of J. Paul Getty, having fun in the 1970s European nightlife. John Paul Getty III, referred in the film as Paul, has an almost too carefree attitude on the near desolate streets of Rome. Suddenly this blissful night comes to a halt when a van pulls up and snatches him. The film’s focus then switches to his grandfather J. Paul Getty’s mansion.
Getty’s casting is now as infamous as the character himself. The title role was given to Christopher Plummer just seven weeks before the film’s release due to the sexual assault scandal of the original lead, Kevin Spacey. On November 8th, ten days after the first of many articles detailing Spacey’s history of sexual assault broke, director Ridley Scott decided to recast and reshoot his film in an effort to remove Spacey’s association with the film entirely. For the next nine days, 88-year-old Christopher Plummer, along with other principal actors, filmed almost 400 new shots in order to have the film released around the same scheduled date, December 22nd.
"It would have been a pity if the film were completely neglected because of what happened,” Scott said to The Hollywood Reporter . "I jumped into it immediately saying, 'I can fix this. We're going to have to recast, make sure everyone was available and the locations were available so I could go back as soon as possible and pick up every shot that [Spacey] was in."
The casting saga alone could have propelled Plummer’s performance into the spotlight, but his superb acting makes one question why he was not chosen for this part to begin with. Plummer’s portrayal of Getty’s ruthlessness as the richest man in the world shines throughout the film.
Although at times it seems tedious, and there are a handful of time jumps, the information and backstory of the Getty family history is pertinent in truly understanding the Getty family.
During a brief expository sequence, the audience is also introduced to Paul’s mother, Abigail (Gail) Harris, played by Michelle Williams. Williams effortlessly captures the spirit of a headstrong mother who will do anything to get her son back despite her father-in-law’s blasé attitude.
In an effort to aid the situation without paying the kidnappers’ $17 million ransom, J. Paul Getty enlists the help of one of his business negotiators, Fletcher Chase, to secure his grandson’s release. Chase, played by a more-serious-than-usual Mark Wahlberg, then embarks on a drawn out, bizarre journey with Gail in an effort to bring Paul home.
The story alone is haunting, and knowing that it is based on a true story is at times emotionally overwhelming. Most notably, viewers are subjected to a gruesome scene when Paul’s kidnappers cut off part of his ear and send it to a newspaper.
However, perhaps the most harrowing autobiographical references are the absurd, seemingly emotionally detached statements made by J. Paul Getty in reference to his grandson’s disappearance.
When the press initially asked him if he would pay the ransom to release Paul, Getty allegedly remarked, “I have 14 other grandchildren...If I pay one penny, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.”
The film as a whole focuses on the main idea of what it means to be a Getty, whether through watching Harris struggle between disowning and embracing the Getty family name, or in Paul’s early comment that “We [Getty’s] look like you, but we’re not like you.” Being a member of a high-profile, wealthy family has its perks and downsides, according to the film, but it is the harrowing, challenging moments that question the value of fortune over family. The mere feeling of disgust toward Getty as he refuses to pay the ransom draws out an innate level of human compassion and empathy.
What makes the film intriguing is not just its life-like quality, but the way the story is mixed with cinematic tropes, such as operatic music or playing with the timeline.
Viewers might already know, or have lived through, the real Getty kidnapping, but All the Money in the World shows the story in a theatrical, but relatable way. The movie’s appeal extends beyond the controversies and change in the leading actor.
It makes the audience think about the thin line between fiction and reality, as well as family versus business dynamics. It makes one question how the richest man in the world could refuse to pay the ransom of his notably favorite grandson. Indeed, at the heart of this film, All the Money in the World challenges us to ponder the truth behind the old saying “money can’t buy happiness.”