“All the Money in the World”: existential moral problem somewhat diluted by expanded thriller format

All the Money in the World” is sold by Sony Pictures as a thriller, but, coming from Ridley Scott and based on a book by John Pearson, the film also provides a setting for a serious moral dilemma, a kind of “Trolley Problem”.

The film, with a lot of dated flashbacks surrounding, chronicles the kidnapping of the 16 year old John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) into a van from the streets in Rome in July 1973, and then the grandfather’s refusal to pay ransom. (“Nothing.”)  It’s not too much of a spoiler to give the Wikipedia narrative of the life of the younger Getty, whose life was severely compromised by the event and led to his death at 54.

So I get the senior Getty’s point: if he gives in, then the other fourteen grandchildren are targets.  You don’t negotiate with terrorists. But in a moral sense, you deny the idea that there are victims at all.  The “victim” personally pays for the sins of the perpetrator for all time (unless saved by Grace).   It’s spiritual extortion. That’s why bullied people often commit suicide.

The movie does tell the story of the Getty family, most of all the mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams). She had renounced any fortune to keep her kids after a divorce, and has none when John III is kidnapped. (“I’m not a Getty; I just married one.”) The kidnappers presume that the senior Getty’s deep pockets will cover everything and threaten to send the son back in pieces (like the 1983 horror film “Pieces”).  They turn out to be petty low-level Mafia figures (no surprise) but are thought to be political Communist terrorists during the film. (The parallel to the Patty Hearst case, as in Jeffrey Toobin’s book (Nov. 9, 2016, reviewed by me the day after Trump’s election) seem striking.)  When Gail “hires” private detective Fletcher Chase (“Marky” Mark Wahlberg, whose early adulthood was tough enough) to find Paul and manipulate the “terrorists” into an eventual deal, Feltcher notes the plethora of false claims from other “kidnappers” purporting to have the boy, which is another reason you don’t pay.

Christopher Plummer (no relation to Charlie) is Scrooge-like enough as the senior Getty. But I would have liked to see Kevin Spacey in the role. It took a fantastic amount of work to reshoot all his scenes in three weeks.

The film makes good use of the events of the time, especially senior Getty’s reaction to the Arab Oil Embargo (and contrived “energy crisis”) after the 1973 Yom Kippur war. While it led to gas lines and odd-even rationing in the US, Getty saw an eventual price crash as inevitable after the political crisis was resolved.  But that did not happen.  Gasoline returned to normal in April 1974 but the price stayed “up”, with gasoline about twice its former price.  The film does show briefly how Getty got rich in 1948 by exploring Saudi Arabia, about the time Israel was founded.  As I recall, for years Getty gas stations sold premium gas only (in New Jersey, at least, when I started working as a young adult in 1970 with a job at RCA in Princeton, and traveled and drove a lot.)

There is one false escape sequence, which Getty III is clever enough to pull off by starting a grass fire outside with a cigarette; he gets caught again by corrupt police. Then when he finally does escape with the payoff set up by Chase with considerable manipulation, he winds up banging on doors hoping for radical hospitality from strangers before one final twist seems to save him.

Before his death, the elder Getty, clutching an art work before a fireplace, gives a monologue on how rich people become targets while presented with too many choices.

There is a curious conversation at the end of the film when Gail gets to be the trustee of the estate and gets her kids back. Gail learns (as I have recently in my own situation) that a lot of times trusts don’t allow you to spend your money or even give it away to charity.  You have to make charities into “investments”.  But I guess Bill Gates is pretty good at that.

John Paul Getty III’s son Balthazar Getty is a musician and also an actor in largely independent film and TV.  It’s ironic that Getty III had a fascination with Charles Manson (“Helter Skelter”), according to Wikipedia.

Calabria scene (where Getty was taken by kidnappers), wiki.

I’ll add to the “moral enigma” I mentioned above:  I’m 74 now, and in 2014 I wrote a blog post saying my own life can never be bargained for.

Name: “All the Money in the World”
Director, writer:  Ridley Scott, John Pearson
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, Christmas Day afternoon, near sellout
Length: 135
Rating:  R
Companies:  Sony Tri-Star
Link:  official 

(Posted: Tuesday, December 26, 2017, at 10:30 AM EST)

“The Skyjacker’s Tale” and left-wing terrorism

Jamie Kastner’s 76-minute documentary “The Skyjacker’s Tale”, while not exactly the Pardoner’s Tale (from Canterbury), is indeed a riveting account of the background of a political hijacking in the 1980s, New Years Eve 1984, to be precise.

Ishmael Muslim Ali aka Ishmael LaBeet got a gun onto an America Airlines flight from the Virgin Islands and demanded to be left off in Cuba.  The film has many snippets of the elder l:aBeet talking from Cuba today, saying he is respected in his neighborhood.  He sounds proud of what he did.  But as Obama normalized (somewhat) relations with Cuba in 2014, he could face extradition again to the US.

The background is that in September 1972, apparently about the time of the Munich Olympic attacks, LaBeet and a cadre of other black men stormed the Rockefeller owned Fountain Valley Golf Club in St. Croix, killing at least five white people.  The motive was at first thought to be robbery but soon began to appear to be race and class war.  There were stories that this was an armed insurrection intended to make the Virgin Islands a black country.  The film makes a lot of the rhetoric of the time;  in some circles around the Black Panthers, you could not remain moderate;  if you didn’t didn’t fight for them, you were part of the enemy.  For a time much of the Virgin Islands was shut down by the terror threat.

LaBeet and the others were eventually caught, and confessions were extracted perhaps with torture (“Extreme Rendition”).  LaBeet wound up serving about 12 years in mainland US prisons before legal tricks got him back to the Virgin Islands for retrial. When he was flown back to the states to return to prison, he pulled off his own heist.

Charlotte Amalie, wiki

Communist Party HQ in Havana, wiki

See also “American Heiress”, Jeffrey Toobin’s book. Nov. 9, 2016.

Name:  “The Skyjacker’s Tale”
Director, writer:  Jamie Kastner
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant Play, 2017/11/15
Length:  76
Rating:  na
Companies:  Strand Releasing
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 at 11:50 PM ESR)

Jeffrey Toobin’s “American Heiress” explores the confrontational idea of political kidnapping in his detailed biography of Patty Hearst

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Author: Jeffrey Toobin
Title, Subtitle: “American Heiress”
publication date 2016
ISBN 978-0-3855-3671-4
Publication: Doubleday, 372 pages, hardcover, five parts, 27 chapters
Link: author

When news about Patty Hearst’s  being kidnapped by a ragtag “Symbionese Liberation Army”  in early February 1974 hit the papers, I was traveling on a benchmark for Univac, working long hours in Eagan MN, and very much wanting to get back “home” to the New York area for my own new lifestyle.  This was a time of gasoline shortages and economic difficulties after the Arab oil embargo.

Before my “second coming” (as gay, in early 1973), I had been spying (while living in northern New Jersey) on “the People’s Party of New Jersey”, partly because I “liked” its male candidate for Congress.  One Saturday night in December, after skiing, I sat in on a planning meeting in a drafty tenement in Newark, NJ.  I became shocked when I heard talk of potential violence and expropriation.

Jeffrey Toobin’s long opus “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst” starts out by reminding us that violent left-wing-based terrorism was the norm in the late 60s and early 70s, in large part in reaction to Richard Nixon’s continued pursuit of the Vietnam War. Bombings were common, and getting directions on how to make them really was not difficult even in pre-Internet days.  With a conventional professional job, I was somewhat sheltered from all of this (despite the Newark spy session)  Maybe I should have felt less sheltered.  Having made myself public in the Internet age, I’m perfectly well aware that someone could go after me as a “pig” or “infidel” or some other kind of sinner.

The kidnapping of Patty Hearst is shocking specifically as it was a political kidnapping (the term Toobin uses), intended to exact retribution on a family for unearned wealth and “oppressive” media influence.  In the days before the Internet, the “4th Estate” was considered more powerful than now.  In fact, one of my first “tricks” as a gay man in NYC in 1976 talked about “the abuse of the media” all the time.  He also hinted possible knowledge of a small bombing that had happened at La Guarida airport (in a storage locker).  He showed up one more time and invited me to watch “Deep Throat” with him at Times Square, and then thankfully disappeared from my life.

The SLA made a great spectacle of the Hearst’s forced food give-away to PIN (“people in need”) in Oakland.  Toobin covers the complicated narrative of the first shootout that eliminated six SLA members, and then of Patty’s life on the run (with a new lover, part of it back East in Pennsylvania).  Interesting is the SLA’s view that’s sexuality should be communal (and that others had a right to your body in a commune).  Patty could parrot the self-righteousness of the radical Left (which I got a piece of with the People’s Party) aswell as anyone.  The trial (with F. Lee Bailey) of course focused on whether she was coerced (to very specific threats on her life) or actually believed the ideology.  I believe both are true.  It is a simple fact that lives can be hijacked (or carjacked) by the aggression of others.  Then, “it is what it is.”

Particularly interesting, too, is Patty’s coming to see her first boyfriend, Steven Weed, as a physical “coward” who want to exploit the incident for his own publicity.

The Patty Hearst narrative is an extreme, outlier example of what can happen if someone perceived to benefit from “unearned privileged” at the indirect expense to others, is targeted.  On the other hand, when you hear the SLA communist (frankly Maoist) rants about “the people”, you wonder who “the people” really are.  Some individuals in the People’s Party back in the 1970s frankly admired Mao’s ideas.

(Published: Wednesday, November 9, 2016 at 11:45 AM EST)