Film Review: All the Money in the World
American billionaire John Paul Getty Sr. famously said, “I have 14 grandchildren, and if I pay a penny of ransom, I’ll have 14 kidnapped grandchildren.” The kidnapping of his grandson Paul in Italy in 1973 and the subsequent demand for $17 million in ransom was the provocation for this statement. Getty Sr. refused to pay and as a result the teenager remained in captivity for four months, even being sold on by the frustrated kidnappers.
The drama surrounding this true event is the basis of Ridley Scott’s film, which takes inspiration from the story as captured in John Pearson’s 1995 book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortune and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty. The film opens in Rome in 1973, where 16-year-old Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is taken hostage. His mother Gail’s (Michelle Williams) insistence that she does not have the ransom money does not hold water. The kidnappers want her to get it from her former father-in-law. But Gail’s efforts to reach Getty Sr. (Christopher Plummer), who lived in seclusion at his English manor house, prove futile. “There are very few things in life worth paying full price for,” he says. The only thing the grandfather offers is the negotiation skills and support of his security in-charge (Mark Wahlberg) who, over time, begins to sympathise with Gail and feels disgusted by his callous employer.
Gail’s only contact with her son is via his letters and calls from one kidnapper who goes by the name of Cinquanta (Romain Duris). Weeks of negotiation, horrifying examples of proof of life, a media frenzy and fear surround Gail. Based on a script by David Scarpa, All the Money in the World is as much a thriller as a study of the psychology of wealth and Getty’s selfishness. When asked what it would take to make him secure, he replies, “More”. Getty’s miserliness meant that he installed a payphone in his mansion for use by his guests, and that he was only willing to pay the ransom up to an amount that was tax deductible.
Eventually you see that Paul is a victim in many ways—not just of corruption and crime but also of the power-play between parent and grandparent. Getty Sr. could not stand to be beaten in a negotiation. He was a man who liked to amass possessions, viewing even his grandchildren as belongings.
As fascinating as this sounds, there are emotional voids in the film. Paul’s father, John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan), is barely seen and at times the principal actors seem to be performing in isolation. It’s possible that is partially the fallout of scrubbing out Kevin Spacey and replacing him with Plummer in the central role.
The film-makers are not neutral in their point of view; there is definitely judgement about a rich capitalist who amassed wealth but was devoid of humanity and kindliness. Scott slowly draws you into Getty’s world, ensconced in his mansion. That’s the story that wants telling. The one we get is a technically rich, beautifully styled, decently performed and moderately interesting spectacle.