In many ways, it’s a shame that a certain percentage of the audience going to see All the Money in the World will do so out of some sort of morbid curiosity, to see how seamlessly the scene re-shot to feature Christopher Plummer as billionaire oil tycoon J. Paul Getty fit into the film, after those featuring Kevin Spacey were extracted less than a month ago. I can let you know now, you’ll never know the difference. I’d even go so far as to say, based on the few clips I’ve seen with Spacey (in terrible old-man makeup), that Plummer would have been the better original choice to play the shrewd man whose loyalty to his family stood a distant second to his desire to make a dollar and save a penny.
Directed by Ridley Scott (his second film this year, after the dismal Alien: Covenant), the significantly better All the Money in the World is a blow-by-blow account of the 1973 kidnapping of Getty’s favorite grandson, John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation) in Rome, where he was living with his mother Gail (Michelle Williams), recently divorced from John Paul Getty II (Andrew Buchan). Gail exited the troubled marriage with nothing but her children, a theme that crops up with her repeatedly in the film—family over fortune. Since she has no money, she turns to the elder Getty for the $17 million ransom asked for by the kidnappers, led by a man calling himself Cinquanta (the always-great French actor Romain Duris).
Rather than pay the ransom (rightfully believing that if he does, all of his grandchildren become targets), Getty uses the services of his chief security officer and former CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to locate the teenage hostage, using Gail as his main point of contact with the kidnappers. Over the course of many months of negotiating the ransom amount down significantly (both Getty and Chase pride themselves on their skills at deal making), an unlikely alliance forms between Gail and Chase as they inch closer to locating her son, while the elder Getty never misses an opportunity to take advantage of Gail at her most vulnerable moments.
For much of the film, the kidnapping plot is more of a backdrop to a series of fascinating character pieces, the most interesting being Getty himself. Lest you think director Scott and Christopher Plummer’s replacement work was only on two or three scenes, think again. Getty is a major supporting player in All the Money in the World, but more importantly, his presence is felt in every frame of the movie. There’s a flashback scene in which Getty reunites with John Paul II and meets his grandson for the first time, immediately taken with the boy’s straightforwardness and curiosity about certain art pieces in his home. What appears to be a sweet gesture on behalf of his grandson in that sequence permeates so much of what we think we know about Getty’s feelings toward the boy; but what we later find out makes us despise Getty all the more.
In all the talk of Plummer’s exceptional work, it’s almost been lost how the film belongs to Williams, giving one of her best performances to date. Gail is a woman who is too good and kind for the company she keeps, and she must learn to be ruthless in order to deal with kidnappers and her former father-in-law alike. Thankfully, she has Chase in her corner (despite his being on Getty’s payroll). Director Scott also takes the time to get to know Cinquanta, who, in a bit of reverse Stockholm syndrome, begins to get protective of his captive, while others are ready to start cutting off his body parts to mail to Gail to show they mean business (an ear does pay the ultimate sacrifice).
Despite a running time that creeps well past the two-hour mark, All the Money in the World (based on the book by John Pearson and adapted by David Scarpa) moves like lightning, crackling with one great performance after another.
But under the surface are messages about the corruptive power of money and greed that seem especially relevant today. When someone asks Getty (the richest man in the world at the time) how much money it would take to make him feel financially secure, he answers simply “More.” A message from the ’70s has never seemed so timely. This is a fantastic piece of filmmaking, and I’m especially happy its release wasn’t delayed.