“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)

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