“Think of this as a fairytale that actually happened.“
A line from the movie The Laundromat
By Nina Heyn- Your Culture Scout
How do you turn a dense literary account of financial (mal)practices into a mainstream movie? Director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven series) and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, Contagion) are using a gamut of narrative devices to turn Jake Bernstein’s book “Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite” into The Laundromat, a highly entertaining film about the Panama Papers scandal. The “Panama Papers” refer to 11.5 million documents leaked in 2015 in reference to 240,000 offshore companies registered in Panama by a legal firm Mossack Fonseca. The documents, originally leaked anonymously to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, have detailed both banking transactions and names of the most prominent corporations, celebrities, world leaders, politicians, and just plain super rich who were seeking financial secrecy. The sheer volume of information that has been analyzed by over a hundred media organizations worldwide could hardly fit into Bernstein’s book, much less be an accessible material for a commercial movie. Therefore, Soderbergh devotes barely a scene or two to the actual Panama Papers scandal, i.e. the global media revelation that an offshore banking company Mossack and Fonseca was (a gasp of surprise!) laundering money of the super-rich. Instead, The Laundromat, provides some masterfully acted vignettes from the lives of both the victims and the perpetrators of the shell company game.
The movie’s structure is that of a variety show hosted by Messers Mossack and Fonseca, here played by Gary Oldman – a master of disguises of you remember him from his Oscar-winning performance as Churchill- and Antonio Banderas whose suave charm underscores the actual Ramon Fonseca’s transformation from a wide-eyed believer in social justice to a money-mover. The narrative fourth wall is broken from the get go when Oldman and Banderas address the camera directly or when they move a few steps from a Panamanian prison cell onto the film set. This is more however than just clever theatrical staging. In fact, the kaleidoscope of costumes and settings in which Mossack and Fonseca find themselves fits well with the concept of offshore banking that in essence offers a Chinese box of series of non-existent companies that disguise the ultimate owners of assets. Speaking of Chinese …. Kudos to Soderberg and his filmmaker team for re-creating the famous affair of Bo XiLai, a prominent but corrupt politician from Chongqing, China whose wife was so keen on covering up their international asset transfers that she killed her Western intermediary. It was one of the juiciest corruption scandals, here shown with a dramatic virtuosity. Other vignettes about M+F clients include a story of an African tycoon who is out to outwit his family with an aid of bearer bonds, and a poignant drama of a Lake George cruise boat company that opted for a cheaper insurance provider with disastrous consequences when the boat went down. Stellar ratings of a service provider might not be a guarantee anyway as evidenced by the recent collapse of Thomas Cook, an epitome of British reliability since 1841.
Other than Mossack and Fonseca characters playing the gracious if unscrupulous hosts of The Laundromat’s show and tell, the anthology’s unifying character is that of Ellen Martin, a widow whose insurance payout turned out paltry after the Lake George boat accident. Martin takes upon herself to follow a paper trail that leads her from mundane upstate New York to the tax shelter of Nevis Island. Since this character is embodied by Meryl Streep, from the first scene you are in for laser precision in acting and some chameleon disguises. Martin/Streep leads us to corporation mailboxes in Nevis, the US government pursuit of tax haven managers, and the Russians parking their money in Las Vegas real estate. Part of the fun when watching this movie is identifying various well-known names even in smaller, juicy roles. Matthias Schoenaerts, Sharon Stone, Jeffrey Wright, Robert Patrick, David Schwimmer, Nonso Anozie, Rosalind Chao and many others lit up the screen.
As much as Bernstein’s book aims to document the paper trail from the leak and to explain complex transactions and schemes of the Mossack and Fonseca firm, the movie’s aim seems to more straightforward. It is designed to entertain us while reminding us of the social and financial inequalities of the world, to the point of breaking the fourth wall completely when Meryl Streep addresses the camera in a passionate appeal for a greater financial transparency. The Laundromat is in the vein of Adam McKay movies (Vice and Big Short) that used the same explanatory fun style to remind audiences that the world is run in secrecy by powerful elites while “the meek get screwed” to quote The Laundromat. At moments, the movie tries a bit too hard to entertain us while not really disclosing any hard secrets, but then it IS the movie rather than a list of 11.5 million documents. We should take out entertainment wherever we can, and to find a fun movie about real-life finance or politics is a rare occurrence.
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