When Netflix’s film The Laudromat premiered at the Venice Film Festival people cheered, mainly because that Festival, contrary to Cannes, allows streaming movies to be included in the competition. But, after the movie finished they clapped again, mainly because of the shocking content played out as a comedy to show the absurdities to which the rich of the world engage in only to become richer.
Steven Soderbergh’s latest film deals with the confusing and complicated issue of the whistleblower John Doe who leaked millions of documents now known as “The Panama Papers.” I confess that prior to the film I understood only a little about the worldwide scandal of 2016 that is still being reported on by hundreds of investigative journalists worldwide. A documentary film called The Panama Papers (2018) directed by Alex Winter lays out the details about the largest corruption scandal to hit the globe about how the world’s wealthiest hide their money and increase its value undercover and out of view of government agencies.
Meryl Streep expertly plays the character of Ellen Martin whose vacation turns into a horror because of a boating accident and she seeks to obtain compensation from the boat company only to find out that their insurance policy expired before the accident. Not only does she lose out, but also the boat company discovered the insurance agent was a fake who dealt with a legal firm in Panama called Mossack Fonseca. Basically, they have no insurance and lose everything.
Meryl Streep as Ellen Martin. Photo (c) 2019 Claudette Barius/Netflix. All rights reserved.
Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay is written as satire, based on the book of journalist Jake Bernstein, with Jurgen Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Ramon Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) narrating the five secrets to making money, and lots of it. Basically, as they say, the meek are screwed, it’s all about shells, you must tell a friend, bribery is key, and you end up making a killing. With each secret is a story of a filthy rich business executive, head of state, or politician from a different country around the world benefitting from the shell companies created and funneled through the law firm in tax haven paradise, Panama. All the while we see how the middle class working people lose out because of the covetous choices of all the wealthy from around the world whose capital fault is greed—and more greed!
The widow Ellen does her own investigation into the financial scandals only to discover how extensive and slick the powerful of the world ride on the backs of the working class. She feels she is falling apart and enters a church. She prays, “When will the meek inherit the earth? Can’t they [the scammers] say, ‘I’m sorry’ and go to jail, Lord?” It’s an amusing moment in a quirky comedic style of storytelling that at the same time speaks to the truth of humanity and the struggle for justice.
The film uses extensive religious imagery. It shows faith as the haven for the weak, the lowly, those who have no voice, the place one turns to when there is no where else to go. Does it mock religion as only for the weak? Or is it showing religion as a moral compass for society? I feel the filmmakers are leaving the viewer to determine if that is true. Offshore money laundering and tax evasion still happens. And the rich still become richer. But, who brings the evil to justice?
Soderbergh says that the international system that allows such corruption has to change. He continues, “Fifty people control more wealth than 3.5 million citizens of the world. Transparency is the only system. It’s a very troubling time, but speaking about it is a beginning.” The film is an artistic and rough rendering of a very complex story. Making it a dark comedy is more effective in one way than a drama because it is almost laughable how easy it is for those who have money to spare to avoid taxation. And yet is shows the glitz of the greedy which always ends in violence or embarrassment because of such extreme greed. They will be caught and judged. But, the truly wealthy still find ways out of situations, the most ironic ending of all.
Whether you understand all the details of the film or not, you realize that when a human being has so much they only want more and that’s because human beings are weak before the passions that burn within our soul. We grasp. We hold on. We pursue. When the goal is money it only corrupts further. As Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters. He will either hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Mt. 6:24). And there you have it. The Laundromat artistically drives home that question: God or money? Human beings or material goods? What motivates us? What ultimately fulfills us? The film begs us to wonder how people get away with this and hopefully to ignite our fight for justice, especially for the meek and lowly of the earth.