In Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, The Laundromat, Meryl Streep plays a retiree, Ellen Martin, on holiday with her husband (James Cromwell) to celebrate their 40th anniversary. An unexpected tragedy hits and Martin is widowed. But her troubles are just beginning as she seeks to get settlement money, runs against disastrous cases of insurance fraud, shell companies and offshore bank accounts that threaten to ruin her last days of happiness.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but all roads lead back to a shady law firm in Panama run by Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas). The shiny duo serve as tour guides who walk viewers through the corrupt financial system the world’s richest inhabitants thrive on, from the intricacies of fraud and corruption to tax evasion, homegrown and on the remotest of desert islands.
The film is based on the Jake Bernstein book Secrecy World, which exposes the dark corruption behind how the world moves money, leveraged off of the Panama Papers leak which exposed more than 11.5 million documents in 2016 detailing 214,488 offshore entities.
Soderbergh’s film weaves through different stories and subjects across the U.S., China, Mexico and the Caribbean. To bring this complicated financial system to the screen, Soderbergh and co-screenwriter Scott Z. Burns decided that a dark comedy would be the best way to make a complex subject memorable.
“We decided that a dark comedy had the best possible chance of remaining in the minds of the viewers and also gave us the opportunity to use the complexity of these kind of financial activities almost as a joke, almost as the setup for a punch line,” said Soderbergh.
He was inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s classic satire Dr. Strangelove, which “took a very serious subject that turned it into a very, very dark comedy,” he said. “We felt that, otherwise, people would feel that they were being educated, as opposed to being entertained.”
Streep reminded audiences that although the film was a comedy, the issues at hand are indeed life-threatening. “This is a funny way of telling a very, very dark, black-hearted joke, a joke that’s being played on all of us. It’s a crime, not without victims. And many of them are journalists. The reason that the Panama Papers were exported to the world was because there were over 300 investigative journalists who got the word of John Doe, the whistle-blower from Mossack Fonseca, or who knows where out into the world.”
“Some people died for it. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist, who was investigating someone at the top of the government in Malta, and his connection to the Panama Papers, was blown up in her car, in front of her home,” said Streep. “People died and people die still to get the word out. This movie is funny but it’s really, really, really important.”
On playing a relentless woman who wouldn’t back now, Streep said of her character, “I guess grief is a great motivator. The parents of the children shot in the Parkland High School, the parents of the children shot in Newtown, Connecticut. Those people don’t stop. They don’t stop trying to change the world. If it’s personal, you don’t stop. And we rely on the people for whom it really counts to save us all.”
Soderbergh very aptly draws a connection from the Panama Papers to Trump’s tax plan, as both a reminder that the U.S. can also serve as a tax haven and a statement that the system today is built to protect the very rich.
“I think the system has to change. The U.K. just enacted legislation that’s very interesting, the unexplained wealth order. It’s exactly what it sounds like,” he said. “They identified people who have extreme wealth that seems to have come from nowhere and who are using up that wealth to buy up assets in the U.K., and they’re starting to go after them. I think that’s a really fascinating way to attack this.”
“It saddens me to say I think there’s no universe in which that kind of legislation would get enacted in the U.S. which begs the question, well, who would be against such a thing? I think along with climate change, the kind of corruption we’re discussing is a defined issue of this moment.”
“In the year 2000 the top 1 percent controlled a third of the world’s wealth. They now control half. So you’re essentially looking at maybe 50 people who control more wealth than the bottom 3.5 billion people on the planet,” he continued. “That doesn’t seem to me to be a sustainable paradigm, and yet here we are.”
“I think transparency is the only solution. But you have many parts of the world where the legal system is corrupt and therefore an ordinary citizen doesn’t even have the ability to go after people who are breaking the law or even protest in a way that brings about change,” said Soderbergh.
“It’s a very troubling time but speaking about it is the beginning,” he offered. “People have been speaking about it for quite a while, but on occasion a piece of entertainment can be a great conversation starter and get people wondering in my day-to-day everyday life, how am I participating in this?”
“One of the biggest tax havens in the world is in the United States of America,” said Bernstein. “And there’s a lot of vested interest in keeping that system the way it is. Delaware, which is a factory for anonymous shell companies, makes a billion dollars a year from that business. And that’s something they fight zealously to protect. But there are transnational gangs and all kinds of malefactors who are using Delaware companies, around the world, to do terrible things.”
Audiences can expect to see more collaboration between Streep and Soderberg. “Stephen and I just finished a movie that was made in 13 days,” she said, referencing their new film Let Them All Talk. “He’s an artist of this time because time has accelerated. We’re living in a moment when the news cycle is racing and we’re racing to keep up with current events.”
The Laundromat premieres Sunday in Venice. It opens in a limited theatrical release in the U.S. on Sept. 27 before streaming on Netflix on Oct. 18.