There has never been more wealth inequality than there is right now. There have never been more billionaires than there are at this very second. Their portion of the world’s cash increases with every stroke of the second hand. But in 1973, there was only one billionaire, and his determination to keep hold of every single god damn cent now seems like a blueprint for subsequent tax evading tech moguls.
JP Getty made an unimaginable, uncountable fortune exporting oil from the Middle East, inventing the super-tanker in his quest to get the stuff back to the US. It’s in the Saudi desert that we first meet him, dressed like the man from Del Monte, with the face of Christopher Plummer.
It almost wasn’t so. Ridley Scott famously reshot vast portions of his movie just weeks before its release, recasting the utterly toxic Kevin Spacey in favour of the utterly wonderful Christopher Plummer. It was a stroke of genius on several levels: morally, commercially, and because there are few things in life that wouldn’t be improved by shoehorning Christopher Plummer into them.
In credit to all involved, there’s no evidence of the last-minute switcheroo. It's easy to imagine Spacey being braggadocious and – appropriately – oily in the role, while Plummer has a more brittle edge. He plays Getty as a sociopath, but one for whom redemption doesn't always appear out of reach; you’d assume he’d been perfecting it for months, rather than just working it all out between takes. He clearly comes from the Anthony Hopkins school of acting: “I just turn up and read the lines, old boy”.
The story centres on the real-life kidnapping of Getty’s grandson Paul, who was snatched while gallivanting around Rome looking like a lost member of the Doors. Using this traumatic event – based on a book by John Pearson – as a prism to explore the Getty clan and the wider implications of unfettered wealth makes Scott’s film more thriller than biopic.
The action cuts between Getty’s English mansion; a La Dolce Vita-esque Rome, where Paul’s mother Gail, brilliantly played by Michelle Williams, hangs about with former CIA agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg); and the Calabrian countryside, where Paul is being held captive by ne'er-do-wells with links to the mob. There’s a real sense of urgency as JP refuses to budge on his pledge not to hand over a penny of the $17m ransom, even as he hands over a fortune for a black-market painting by an Old Master. The kidnappers eventually resort to the much-trailed mutilation of Paul’s pretty little head, which Scott delivers with predictably gory aplomb.
The message is clearly that money corrupts, and that all the money in the world corrupts... well, loads. But Getty is such a disturbed kleptomaniac, so far removed from the real world, so unrelatable in his disdain for his family, that in the end it’s more of a simple, grotesque portrait of a thoroughly unpleasant man, slowly decaying in the attic of history.
Still, Plummer makes it a fascinating portrait, and it’s hard to see how Spacey would have improved upon it, especially with the clumsy-looking prosthetics seen in pre-release footage. Couple this with Williams at the top of her game – fragile and ferocious – and you have an eminently watchable film, if not quite the scathing commentary on our times it could have been.