On 13 December, the New York Timespublished an article on the scrubbing of Kevin Spacey’s performance as J. Paul Getty from final prints of the film All the Money in the World. A fast reshoot had slotted Christopher Plummer into every scene that included Spacey; the dazzled reporter, Brooks Barnes, paid homage to the genius and alacrity of the director, Ridley Scott; and they called it in the print edition ‘Daring Act to Save Face’ – a sort of sick pun, and the matter is not so cute when you think about it. Scott was prompted by his recognition that the accusations against Spacey, from unwanted touch to groping to rape – which may turn out to be true, false or exaggerated, in unknown combinations – would damage the box-office take of All the Money in the World. Accordingly, he reworked the film against his original vision, in order to guard against a boycott. The boycott, however, was only speculative; the expunging and substitution were real.

If there was a story in this, it would seem to concern the ethics of altering a work of art to accommodate a sudden change in the political weather. Of course, there is an ambiguity in the case of a big-budget movie, especially when the director sides with the financiers against his own final cut. The soldiers of the culture industry were harming no one in view except Spacey when they felt free to pimp the miracle wrought by Ridley Scott. Art and commerce were marching together to counteract the financial loss that all would suffer if All the Money in the World were released under a hashtag cloud. It might be thought low-minded to serenade Scott and Plummer for a choice dictated by panicky expedience; but as veteran craftsmen they doubtless deserved the praise: a rapid turnover that cost $10 million for nine days of replacement shooting may have saved the project by airbrushing it. And from such old men – how magnificent to see them hop to it at 80! The product, now playing in local cinemas, has borne out the heady optimism of the story. The film was rejiggered in time for a Christmas release.

Scott and Plummer’s versatility has received similar laudatory treatment in Variety and other trade journals. The Hollywood Reporterfound a special set of superlatives to fit the circumstances – ‘the paciest, most dynamic film ever made by an 80-year-old director’; ‘the best screen performance ever given by an actor who, a month before the film's debut, hadn't even been cast yet’ – and reviewers in the middlebrow outlets fell into step as if nothing questionable had occurred.

The idea that actors are exchangeable products may come to Ridley Scott more easily than it would to Renoir or Ophuls, Scorsese or P.T. Anderson. The interesting characters in his films have been non-human entities such as the androids played by Ian Holm in Alien and Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. All the Money in the World – a human drama about the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson – deploys a ponderous Steadicam in the indoor scenes and picturesque colour outdoors, with contrasts never uncomfortably sharp, the typical shots halfway between medium and close-up and the people always large enough to be noticed when you come to see them on iPhone or Android media players. Something might have been made of the relationship between Getty and his paintings, but Scott walks away from that opportunity; we are never shown one of Getty’s purchases for long enough to wonder what it might be like to love pictures more than you love people.

A difference between the two performances of the tycoon has been pointed out by Scott himself, one of the few people in a position to know. ‘Kevin, who, without question, did a great job, was colder.’ Plummer’s Getty seems almost affectionate; he plays the part with an occasional subdued chuckle, relaxed and easy with himself, as if the iron is only underneath. This makes sense of the man who at last relents and pays the ransom to the kidnappers, but it renders the conduct of the rest of his life a mystery. Spacey left a bitterer taste: we can make the comparison in one place, anyway, because an entertainment channel held onto the original trailer and placed it side by side with the same moment in the released film. ‘How much would you pay,’ a reporter asks Getty, ‘to release your grandson, if not seventeen million dollars?’ And the answer is flat: ‘Nothing.’ Spacey made it a hoarse negative, devoid of feeling; Plummer speaks the line with raised eyebrows, an upward nod and tilt of the head – an unruffled exit from a conversation that holds no interest. Plummer’s is the more theatrical delivery and none the better for it.

In a spate of recent interviews, Scott has been voluble on subjects far from the art of cinema. A Denver Post reporter asked him about All the Money in the World as a ‘commentary’ on ‘the value of human life, class struggles, and the role of wealth in society’, and this led Scott to say a good word for Trump’s tax bill: ‘If you get a clever, unselfish business person – I don’t care if it’s a corner store or a big business – who’s suddenly saving 15 per cent, they’ll put it back in this business.’ That is pretty much the quality of the social observation derivable from All the Money in the World, notwithstanding the Denver reporter’s interest in human values and the class struggle. The main feeling of its audience seems to be that the film is watchable and probably worth the ticket, but could easily have dropped 25 minutes of dead air around the sordid milieu of the Italian kidnappers and the tepid trust between Getty’s daughter-in-law (Michelle Williams) and the family fixer (Mark Wahlberg). We are asked to believe that a momentous change of heart was prompted in Getty by a short speech of trite condemnation by the fixer.

If the movie is a thriller that makes few demands on feeling, the chance of ‘saving’ it has evoked from Spacey’s former collaborators a profound sense of emotional reclamation. Williams has said of the scenes that she reworked:

If I had been in the movie as it had stood and we hadn't been allowed to reshoot, it would have felt tainted and something to be shy of – something to just forget about entirely. Because it's upsetting to watch someone who has done these things, it's upsetting to watch them glorified. It's upsetting to watch them huge.

The success of the scrubbing, on the other hand, affords a warmth akin to the embrace of family and friends in the recovery room after a medical operation: ‘It's kind of beautiful. It can be done, rewriting the ending to something. We had the resources to do it and not everyone is lucky enough to be able to rewrite endings.’ Her relief is plain. By co-operating with the erasure, Williams has been shriven of guilt by association with Spacey, a burden the movie as originally shot would have forced her to bear. An anthropologist looking at the mood exhibited here – and Williams is not alone – might take it to represent a culture a few months from descending into shamanism and sorcery.

The tidal strength of the mood is apparent whenever a person stands forward and attempts to mitigate its fury. Oliver Stone, Woody Allen, Marilyn Manson, Lindsay Lohan and Matt Damon have spoken words of caution, but it was seldom much more than a word and most of them have stepped back.

On 31 December, Forbes projected that All the Money in the World would earn $14.4 million at the box office in its first eight days – a sum that will more than cover the cost of the nine-day erasure. The success may have consequences. Netflix mimicked the policy of Scott and Sony by scrapping the biopic Gore, with Spacey as Gore Vidal, which was already in post-production. A finished film in the dumpster was preferable to a rash of online denunciations and a new outbreak of speculative charges. But perhaps a revenant Gore can now be safely re-animated, with Mark Wahlberg slotted for Spacey in the title role.

The long history of abusive artists in leading parts, too, may invite a more imaginative extension of the cleansing. Take a bankable male who has not yet been accused – Leonardo DiCaprio (star of the Ridley Scott film Body of Lies) or Daniel Day Lewis (if he can be coaxed out of retirement) – and digitally insert him in, say, all the Marlon Brando scenes of A Streetcar Named Desire. A scrubbed Streetcar might claim the prestige at once of aesthetic experiment and moral reform. With a more relaxed schedule than the nine days that All the Money in the World was allowed, the product could be previewed and revised again at pleasure by a contemporary audience. And as Scott has remarked, their opinion should matter: ‘The fans, in a funny kind of way – they’re not the final word – but they are the reflection of your doubts about something, and then you realise “I was wrong” or “I was right.”’