Director Ridley Scott made a powerful statement when he replaced one of his lead actors, Kevin Spacey, in his most recent film All the Money in the World. In October, Spacey was accused of sexual harassment, less than two months before the film was set to be released. In an unprecedented move, Scott chose to replace him with Christopher Plummer and reshoot all of his scenes.
Much has been said about the recent flood of sexual assault allegations concerning powerful men, particularly powerful men in Hollywood. The response from some has been a lament for the art that will be lost as a result…ethically, must we feel compelled to give up the good art that these men have created (or will create) just because of their transgressions? (Can we still enjoy Woody Allen films?)
Scott’s rapid and decisive choice to replace Spacey exhibited not only an astute assessment of the public’s reactions to these allegations, but also set a powerful example for dealing with such scenarios in the future. There are enough great artists in the world that we can afford the “luxury” of choosing to support those who have NOT been accused of sexual assault, and we must be willing to dismiss those who have.
It’s interesting that this decision was made in tandem with this particular film; All the Money in the World is very much about men of great wealth and power and they statements they choose to make with them. It follows the story of J. Paul Getty, an American billionaire and oil tycoon, who famously refused to pay ransom when his sixteen-year old grandson was kidnapped by an Italian crime family.
Paul, the grandson in question, wasn’t always worth kidnapping; the film opens with scenes of him strolling through the idyllic Italian nightlife while he explains how he came to be a Getty. “You see,” he tells us, “my grandpa wasn’t just the richest man in the world; he was the richest man in the history of the world.” Flashback ten years, when his parents, the determined Gail (a luminous Michelle Williams) and alcoholic John Paul (Timothy Hutton) are struggling financially; in a state of desperation, they turn to John Paul’s estranged father for help. To their surprise, the Getty patriarch (Christopher Plummer) makes his son the head of the Italian division of his oil company, catapulting the young family into a life of wealth and public scrutiny.
Early scenes show the family meeting Getty the elder for the first time, and it’s immediately clear that the old man is peculiar breed; he’s abrupt, eccentric, and calculating. He does his own laundry because the laundress charges too much, gifts his young grandson an artifact valued at over a million dollars simply because the boy is seen looking at it, and attempts to explain away his absence as a father by telling his son, “I couldn’t be weighed down mentally by a family…you understand.” While strolling through some Roman ruins, he more or less tells his grandson that he is the Emperor Hadrian reincarnated, a belief expressed without irony.
Despite all of these idiosyncrasies, is comes as a shock when, flash forward, he informs a distraught Gail that he refuses to pay the $17 million ransom being demanded for the safe return of his teenage grandson. “I have fourteen grandchildren, and if I paid a single ransom, I’d soon be paying for all of them,” he says practically. His refusal sets off a race against time, as Gail works furiously with Getty’s fixer, former CIA operative Fletcher Case (Mark Wahlberg), to find Paul, negotiate his release, and come up with enough money to appease his kidnappers.
All the Money in the World isn’t just one type of film—it’s part biopic, part suspense movie, part family drama—and it mostly works, blending these genres into a cohesive whole that doesn’t really feel like anything else. Every moment spent with Getty is a rare treat; Plummer is so superb that it’ll have people wondering why he wasn’t the first choice from the get-go. His Getty fascinates even as he repulses us, and in brief moments, Plummer even renders him endearing; it’s difficult not to feel at least a little admiration for a man who follows his own code so relentlessly. William’s presence centers the film and provides much of it’s heart; she’s not only relatable as a terrified and protective mother, but as a woman fed-up with Getty’s behavior, unafraid to go toe-to-toe with him. Wahlberg, who has begun to carve out a niche for himself as a rough-around-the-edges, all-American everyman, is serviceable here, and lends an outsider’s perspective to this familial saga.
Though some might find the pacing and structure a test on their patience—the struggle to rescue Paul is interrupted by numerous obstacles and false starts, and the point of view shifts often between Paul, Gail and Fletcher, and Getty— it only amplified my engagement. The whole story is almost too crazy to be true, and I watched it unfold with an “all bets are off” anticipation, anxious with every new development that it would be too little, too late. The geographical jumping around allows Scott to use the settings to his thematic advantage. Getty spends his time almost entirely at his massive estate, surrounded by his expansive art collection; the dimly little interiors are beautiful and mysterious, like a Vermeer brought to life. In contrast, Paul is being held somewhere in the Italian countryside, forced to sleep on a stone slab, covered in filth, and dependent on his captors for food and care. His experience is as embodied as his grandfather’s is remote.
It’s in this disparity where the film’s thematic heart lies. While in captivity, one of Paul’s captors, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), expresses shock that his family hasn’t paid his ransom yet. “I am obligato,” he said. “I was born into my family and that defines my whole life.” “I was obligato too,” Paul answers sadly. They both understand that family everything, but money has made the implications of that truth result in wildly different realities for the two men. Scott is interested in the old world versus new world values—family versus money, experiences versus things—but also in the tragedy of privilege. If All the Money in the World has something to teach us, it’s that money can’t protect us from pain, and no amount of wealth can make up for the lack of human essentials—love, companionship, honesty. Without making excuses for his stinginess, Scott portrays Getty and his self-made circumstances with pathos and nuance.
In a pivotal scene, a character clutches a painting of the Madonna and child and silently weeps; simultaneously, real-life mother Gail scours the lamp-lit streets of an Italian village, knocking on doors in search of her lost child. The allusion to the Nativity is subtle and lovely—a humble setting, unaware of the value of which it houses; a weary traveler, dependent on the kindness of strangers. It’s these small touches that elevate All the Money in the World beyond the average “based on a true story” tale.
Scott has long been revered as a master, consistently demonstrating vision, innovation, and efficiency. But with the release of his latest work, I’m prompted to add another word to this list of descriptors, one that I deploy with the utmost respect: integrity. In both art and action, Scott has revealed himself to be a man of conscience, confidently making tough calls for the sake of a greater good.