Besides wanting to see how much difference Christopher Plummer’s role as oilman J. Paul Getty (reportedly complete in ten days) would make to replace Kevin Spacey who is embroiled in a Hollywood scandal, I also wanted to see how Mark Wahlberg’s agent was able to negotiate for an astronomical sum for reshooting the scenes involving Getty whereas Michelle Williams agreed to do it for next-to-nothing. It is really incredibly impressive, but I am still puzzled by Wahlberg’s fees (especially since he speaks with a drowsy cadence throughout).
One scene I most looked forward to involved the cutting of part of Getty’s grandson’s ears, news of which have haunted me since I read about it in the newspapers when I was 15 years old.
The movie is based on a 1995 book by David Scarpa which I’ve not read, but the story has been stuck in my mind for more than four decades. I could not begin to fathom why anyone would be so heartless and cruel: to think that not even his grandson is worth paying a ransom for, even though he is the richest man in the world and the amount is only peanuts to his vast fortune.
In Rome in 1973, 16-year-old Paul (Charlie Plummer, no relation to Christopher Plummer) was kidnapped and a ransom of US$17 million was demanded. His parents had been divorced for nine years and in exchange for full custody of her children, his mother Gail (Williams in a heartfelt, steely performance as a mother with fierce determination) did not get any alimony and so was not able to pay the ransom. She appealed to her former father-in-law to pay the ransom but he refused in the believe that it would only encourage more kidnappings on his family, especially the other 13 grandchildren. The media thought Gail was rich and blamed her for not paying the ransom. She was not a person anymore, but a symbol.
In the meantime, Getty asks Fletcher Chase (Wahlberg), a Getty Oil negotiator and former CIA operative, to investigate the case and secure Paul’s releasse. Paul is kept hostage in a remote location in Calabria, Southern Italy. Chase pinpoints the hideout but Paul had been sold to another crime organisation that is more aggressive in their demand for ransom but lowering the demand to US$4 million.
Getty at first thought it is right not to pay the ransom and right to follow his guts but finally agrees to contribute $1 million (this being the maximum that he can claim as tax deductible) but Gail must sign her parental rights to her former husband. However, the kidnappers cut off part of Paul’s right ear and mails it to a major newspaper and say they will mutilate him further (the other ear, fingers, hands and leg) until the full ransom is paid. Getty finally agrees; Gail and Chase take the money to Italy and follow specific instructions from the captors on where to leave the money and where to pick Paul up. However, a frightened Paul has run away by the time they reach the location. The captors realise they’ve been discovered by the police and hunts Paul down, but Chase and Gail manage to find him and get him out of the country.
Grandfather Getty dies and Gail is given the responsibility of managing her children’s inheritence until they are of age. As someone who would spend a seven-figure sum on a small Renaissance painting of disputed origin, Getty has a humongous collection of possessions which he relishes owning; all these are now on display in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California.
Christopher Plummer coming on board is a minor miracle. He should have been cast from the beginning: his perfomance of a miserly billionaire with a cold, cold heart is like that of a brain surgeon who saves lives in his sleep. His portrayal of Getty has an avuncular twinkle and a hint of vulnerability. He gives an impeccably refined performance as an extremely wealthy man who is barely recognizable as a member of the human race. (If you can count your money, you ‘re not a bilionaire.) His age (88) also means he looks the part; I doubt Spacey’s prosthetic make-up (as fine as it could possibly be, which I saw in an old trailer) would be as effective.
Besides the cast, also to be commended are the people who work behind the scenes: The art direction, stunts, graphics, set decorators, make-up and hair, prosthetics, modelers, prop constructors, plasterers, location managers (for beautiful scenes in Rome (The Colosseum), other parts of Italy, Morrroco, England and California), technicians, costumers, stand-ins, digital artist, music, visual, special and sound effects.