Steven Soderbergh’s ‘The Laundromat’ Provides a Dramatic Guide Into the Panama Papers Scandal
Netflix’s “The Laundromat” puts into clarity one of the great financial scandals of recent times. It is director Steven Soderbergh’s latest work of compact filmmaking, using a small budget to tell a grand story with a hard-hitting message. For the layman the Panama Papers leak may at first sound archaic. All everyone knew for sure was that it involved powerful people using offshore accounts and shell companies to hide a lot of their loot. Soderbergh not only makes the basics of the case accessible, he turns it all into a striking tale of the nature of greed.
Our narrators are Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas), two well-dressed lawyers who work in Panama and open the film with an insightful monologue on the history of money. We then meet Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), an American retiree whose husband Joe (James Cromwell) dies during a freak ferry accident while on vacation. But when the ferry owners try to deliver compensation they discover their insurance company was fake. This kick starts a series of vignettes beginning with Martin seeking answers which lead to a corrupt con artist in the Bahamas, Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), who was even conning his own wife. We meet other fraudsters like Charles (Nonso Anozie), who tries to bribe his daughter into silence when she finds him having an affair with her roommate. He offers a shell company as a prize. In China a man named Maywood (Matthias Schoenaerts) suffers the wrath of a high-level Chinese woman he refuses to accept business terms with. Through it all Mossack and Fonseca explain the nature of shell companies and the intricate ways people amass vast sums of money out of thin air and fraud.
“The Laundromat” works as essentially dramatized information. Soderbergh and his longtime collaborator, writer Scott Z. Burns, know how to take the most complex facts and figures and slim them down into an engaging narrative. The trick is in turning this not so much into a story about the Panama Papers, but into a collage of the kinds of people who get involved in fraud and why. Mossack and Fonseca are there to give us the excuses, emphasizing humans’ inherent drive towards being greedy. The opening monologue is a crackling summation of how the concept of commerce began as an exchange of goods, then worth was given to the actual idea of a monetary system. When people figure out how to manipulate that system they are capable of anything to gain wealth, that all powerful determination of someone’s status in a consumerist society. It’s as old as the dawn of time, as demonstrated when Mossack and Fonseca walk by a tribe of Neanderthals.
Every character is then linked in some way to the front companies in Panama which were run by Mossack and Fonseca. Martin is the only innocent party because she represents the common citizen who believes they are insured or have financial security, only to discover the company name on their paperwork is fake. Meryl Streep delivers another fine performance, combining anger with humor. Like a web the narrative spreads out from Martin to then Boncamper, who “ran” the insurance company the boating company thought represented them. Boncamper was such a huckster he had two wives oblivious to each other’s existence. Nonso Anozie is smooth corruption as Charles, the wealthy dad who thinks teaching his daughter a life lesson means giving her a crash course in paying your way out of a mess. Of course when she tries to claim her money in Panama, Mossack gives her the bad news that the company daddy offered was all smoke and mirrors. The story involving Maywood gives us a window into how even a one-party state like China is not immune to the ways of fraud, because greed reaches everywhere, even to the wives of Communist Party officials. Mossack and Fonseca, both based on actual people, are examples themselves of how money trumps ethics. Fonseca in particular has a strongly-written testimonial about being influenced by Liberation Theology as a child but soon realizing changing the world is hard, it’s easier to represent the rich.
Soderbergh’s best moments in this film however, are when he details exactly how a shell company functions. We go into the offices as Mossack and Fonseca designate fake presidents of fake companies. When one “president” suddenly dies from an accident involving a power line, they simply tap the nearest secretary (one in particular is played by a surprise star). In the style of films like “The Big Short,” mazes of economic and business lingo are made so clear as to put the scheme on display as vivid as a blueprint. It’s astounding how the rules can be manipulated, as when Charles tells his daughter there’s a law that says that if you hold a certain paperwork in your hand, literally, you are the owner of any given company.
The final moments of “The Laundromat” attempt to give a sense that crime doesn’t pay, and Mossack and Fonseca are soon in handcuffs when a mysterious source leaks everything to the press and authorities. Those who follow the news remember the aftershocks when presidents and even famous authors were linked to the front companies operating out of Panama, it would even connect to the shocking revelations involving the Brazilian mining company Obredecht, which was found to have bribed Latin American governments with billions for contracts.
If there is a defining message in “The Laundromat” it is delivered by Meryl Streep who recites a statement by the leaker who exposed the Panama Papers. It is a call for more oversight on the financial world. A clip of President Obama reminds us that much of what was done was technically legal, the problem is how the laws allowed people like Mossack and Fonseca to find loopholes used to steal. “The Laundromat” is the kind of movie that is entertaining because it’s directed with sharp zest, but important because you learn something along the way.
“The Laundromat” opens Sept. 27 in select theaters and begins streaming Oct. 18 on Netflix.