At the heart of the surreal story of John Paul Getty Sr. and the 1973 kidnapping of his eldest grandson, John Paul Getty III, is a portrait of capitalism’s insistence and unwavering reliance on inhumanity. Getty Sr., once the richest man in the entire world thanks to an unabated thirst for and understanding of oil, saw the negotiation of his grandson’s return from a gaggle of kidnappers in Rome, Italy as a business decision, rooted primarily in a desire to avoid the possibility of losing a cent more of his incalculable fortune. As such, Getty is often depicted – in non-fiction as much a narrative creations – as the embodiment of insidious greed and indistinct evildoing.
That’s how Getty was written in Ridley Scott‘s All the Money in the World, a role that was thankfully subverted and made human by Christopher Plummer‘s superb, unfortunately abbreviated performance. It’s easy to agree with such a characterization considering the extent of Getty’s obsessive control and hunger for power, but it also scrapes Getty and the story of nuance and empathy, making the primary adversary of the story a vague, unrepentantly evil kind of greed and excusing the system that richly rewarded Getty for his ugly actions.
FX’s Trust, which tells the same story as Scott’s film essentially, has a similar issue at its core, but its grating effects are felt more forcefully when its allowed some eight or nine hours to get to the point. In for Plummer is Donald Sutherland, who plays Getty as distant, calculating, sadistic, and ever-so-slightly idiosyncratic in his daily routines and interactions with his girlfriends, children, the press, colleagues, and employees. (They were all likely considered little more than ungrateful employees, if any accounts of Getty’s behavior are to be believed.) And as directed by Danny Boyle and written by Simon Beaufoy, who is also credited as the series’ creator, the story of his extended refusal to pay any ransom for his grandson (Beach Rats breakout Harris Dickinson) is the story of generational strife, an old, unfeeling billionaire enraged as much by the freedom, carelessness, and vigor of youth as he is the unyielding march of time and the inevitability of his death. Its relevance in the age of the Millennials, Generation Y, and the Boomer backlash should not be lost on a flock of pigeons, let alone human beings.
The fatal flaw here is that neither the writer nor the director have much insight into such generational entanglements beyond a shrug. If not for the cast, which counts top-shelf performers like Hilary Swank, Brendan Fraser, and Silas Carson amongst its menagerie, Beaufoy’s scripts would come off as little more than hastily edited Wikipedia sections. There is neither an obsessive focus on the facts, such as in David Fincher‘s Zodiac, nor much of any outlandish yet poignant bursts of historical fiction, but rather the same over-processed conflations, half-guesses, and liberal sprinkling of facts that power most middlebrow historical dramas that garner Oscar nominations. The tactic is clearly a general disinterest in the lurid, antic inner lives of these characters and an unneeded overabundance of story that, for all its quantity, gets us no closer to understanding how Getty turned into this kind of man or how his grandson came to believe he could be so reckless and never have to pay the price for his indulgences.
Boyle, for his part, litters the visual landscape with a panoply of camera tricks when he’s not simply aiming for glossy competency. With a few notable exceptions, however, the tricks don’t challenge or reveal details in Beaufoy’s dialogue, and when Boyle dips into symbology, he goes blindingly obvious – one particular shot of a run-over black swan made me audibly groan. It’s unclear if Boyle has any interest in the story beyond its boilerplate topicality and sense of history, which leaves the entire production feeling at once lacking for ideas yet overtly didactic. There’s a vaguely pleasant handsomeness to the series but there’s no imagination and no sense whatsoever why it was important for Boyle or Beaufoy to lend their irrefutable talents to this thorny material.
If one were to read a book about the Getty kidnapping, it would serve the same purpose and likely be way more satisfying than Trust. If there is a reason to keep up with Boyle and Beaufoy’s dry drama, it’s Fraser’s take on James Fletcher Chase, Getty’s right-hand man. Fraser’s bold, comical performance breaks out of the droning incuriosity of the production and does so without showing too much effort or being overly tidy. It make his scenes in Rome with Swank, as Getty’s former daughter-in-law and mother to his grandson, electrifying and separates him from the dull, empty prestige that’s slathered over nearly everything else. At certain moments, Fletcher breaks the fourth wall to essentially reiterate the story thus far for the audience members who have been scrolling through Twitter for the last three scenes. Even such tedious and pointless exercises become engaging and occasionally funny when Fraser is relating them.
Fletcher may be the anchor of the first half of the series, serving as the middleman between Sutherland’s miserable tyrant and Swank’s righteous, desperate mother bear, but he’s not enough to make the rest of Trust worth sitting through in full. It’s worth noting, however, that Trust is only the latest in a swelling class of TV shows that stress quantity of story over quality. There’s nothing particularly moving or incisive about Boyle and Beaufoy’s show but there sure is a lot of it, which is ironically a philosophy of storytelling that Getty Sr. would find unerringly sensible.
Trust begins airing on FX at 10 p.m. EST starting Sunday, March 25th.