Political Film Review #599


With the writing skills of  Jake Bernstein and Scott Z. Burns, director Steven Soderbergh decided to bring the Panama Papers to the screen in The Laundromat. Rather than a conventional story beginning with a problem, developing characters through various scenes, leading to a climax, the film illustrates various lessons that should be learned from worldwide money laundering that keeps the rich rich, the poor poor, and is too complicated for those in between to figure out. The lessons are headlined on the screen from 1 to 5. Filmviewers learn that the rich have avoided legal liability and paid no taxes for more than a century by forming corporations headquartered in Delaware (which Nevada and Wyoming have emulated). More recently, shell companies headquartered in various places around the word (British Virgin Islands, Cyprus, Panamá, etc.) play the same role so that the rich pay no taxes to any countries at all. The more specific aim is to explain the scandal of 2016, known as the Panamá Papers, which exposed corruption around the world, causing resignations of prime ministers, folding of corporations, and three months of jail time for those found guilty after 11.5 million files were leaked from a Panamanian offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca, about 214,488 offshore entities.

The complexities are articulated by arrogant shell company attorneys Jürgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) in the style of a documentary. The candidate for the main plot features recently widowed Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep), who expects to inherit a fortune but instead uncovers insurance fraud to which her late husband succumbed. She then seeks to uncover the truth. But there are other subplots demonstrating how easily those with wealth dupe those without, including a window into an organ harvesting scheme that operates in China.

The film ends with a polemical screed by Meryl Streep about the masters who have enslaved the peoples of the world, a short diatribe far more eloquent than those offered by Bernie Sanders’s “democratic socialism” and Elizabeth Warren’s “structural change,” but articulated in an condescending tone that appears to assume that those who in cinemas are fools out of touch with reality and will remain so after they exit the doors. Those who seek enlightenment may have to view the film twice, which Netflix conveniently offers, but much more is available elsewhere and may emerge when Donald Trump’s tax returns are made public.

Despite the agonizing method of presentation, the Political Film Society has nominated The Laundromat for best film exposé of 2019.  MH