Warning: SPOILERS ahead for The Laundromat.
Netflix’s The Laundromat is based on the real-life Panama Papers leak but doesn’t explore the true story in its entirety. Instead, director Steven Soderbergh strips the story down for an explanatory commentary about tax concepts. The Laundromat has all the cinematic polish of a typical Soderbergh flick, which provides for a mostly entertaining experience. But for that reason, The Laundromat true story about “the secret life of money” is reduced to a bullet point list of talking points.
Based on Jake Bernstein's 2017 book Secrecy World, The Laundromat is fundamentally about the 2015 Mossack Fonseca leak, in which the questionable off-shore dealings of wealthy elites were revealed. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas portray Mossack Fonseca co-founders Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca, respectively. As the film’s hosts, these two characters educate the audience about shell company secrets; a structural device that allows Soderbergh to break The Laundromat into five sections for clarity.
Soderbergh’s The Laundromat features an all-star ensemble cast, with Meryl Streep leading the way as Ellen Martin, a fictional character that derives from a real-life tragedy. From act to act, Soderbergh infuses the Netflix film with all his usual style, but seems to gloss over the heart of the matter: what actually happened beyond the basics. Here’s what The Laundromat leaves out about the Panama Papers, and why.
What The Laundromat Doesn't Tell You About The Panama Papers
In 2015, the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung received leaked Mossack Fonseca client information. The amount of data was so expansive - 11 million documents connected to over 200,000 accounts - that over 100 organizations from approximately 80 countries were enlisted to read over the documents over the course of one year. On April 3, 2016, the leak findings were made public, with the primary reveal being that Mossack Fonseca clients used the off-shore company to avoid taxes, and for illegal activities. In The Laundromat, the leak doesn’t take place until the final act, and it's only briefly referenced. For dramatic purposes, Soderbergh uses Mossack and Fonseca as unreliable narrators to explain their operation, rather than detailing the behind-the-scenes investigation.
Because The Laundromat isn't primarily focused on the actual Panama Papers leak and the subsequent investigation, the Whistleblower is only briefly mentioned during the final act. During a bar scene, Mossack and Fonseca discuss who the Whistleblower might be, along with their motivations. In reality, the person's identity still hasn't been revealed. One month after news reports first surfaced about the Panama Papers, the Whistleblower reportedly claimed that he leaked the information to expose the scope of Mossack Fonseca's reach; to essentially provide a look behind the curtain of a secret show constructed for wealthy elites. A more hard-hitting film like All the President's Men focuses heavily on investigative reporters' interactions with the Watergate Whistleblower known as "Deep Throat". In contrast, The Laundromat is less of a procedural and more of a cautionary tale about basic off-shore concepts. Soderbergh focuses on the difference between tax evasion and tax avoidance, rather than Whistleblower drama.
Aside from Mossack and Fonseca, The Laundromat doesn't attempt to embarrass any of the real-life people named in the leak. The private dealings of numerous international government officials are detailed in the Panama Papers, along with celebrities such as Stanley Kubrick, Pedro Almodóvar, and Aishwarya Rai. While many wealthy and powerful people used Mossack Fonseca to cover up illegal activities, some used the company for legal financial purposes - a concept that's indeed made clear in the film. With The Laundromat, though, Soderbergh doesn't fully dive into the Panama Papers' dirty little secrets. Instead, he uses various sections, designed like short stories, to explain how off-shore companies are structured. Soderbergh seeks to educate about tax concepts and uses both Mossack and Fonseca for comedic relief.
Curiously, The Laundromat doesn't reveal much about the actual Mossack and Fonseca. Throughout the film, the fictionalized versions speak to the audience, hoping to tell their story. “We are real people, just like you,” Mossack says, just before suggesting that viewers should think of the stories to follow as “fairy tales that actually happened.” In real life, Mossack and Fonseca reportedly aren't too thrilled with how they're portrayed in The Laundromat, evidenced by a libel lawsuit against Netflix. The duo claims that Soderbergh's film “...defames and portrays the Plaintiffs as ruthless uncaring lawyers who are involved in money laundering, tax evasion, bribery, and other criminal conduct." And therein lies the primary reason for why Soderbergh leaves out so much information about the Mossack Fonseca leak and the people involved - it's a movie that explains how off-shore companies work and thus allow clients to utilize shell companies to avoid taxes. The Laundromat focuses on "secrets" and the rules of the game, so to speak, rather than operating like a 10-part limited series about the history of Mossack Fonseca and how everything connects from beginning to end.
The Laundromat's Rules Explained
Since the The Laundromat aims to educate viewers, it frames Mossack and Fonseca as in-the-know characters who can reveal important information about shell companies - inactive businesses that allow clients under-the-radar financial flexibility. There are five "secrets", or rules, that Mossack and Fonseca discuss in The Laundromat. The complementary plot sections are designed to progress the primary storyline about Ellen Martin's search for answers about shell companies, but also to inform viewers about how such rules apply to real life. Meaning, Soderbergh warns the audience through Mossack and Fonseca's on-screen commentaries.
In the section “The Meek Are Screwed,” Soderbergh sets up the film’s inciting incident, as Ellen Martin’s husband, Joe (James Cromwell), tragically passes away during a boating accident. After learning about insurance fraud that will affect her bank account, Streep’s character then pursues more information, thus establishing that she’s not a "meek" individual. This is a recurring theme, a secret that Mossack and Fonseca reveal about society; a rule for manipulating the "meek." Prior to the opening boat accident, the Martins explain the meaning of the word “posh” to a couple who are less than impressed; a metaphor for real-life people who are simply content with what they already know to be true and don't want to think too hard about what happens outside their comfort zone. So Rule One is: Like Ellen, be curious about shell companies, otherwise - as The Laundromat's first secret demonstrates - you will be screwed.
During the second section, “It’s Just Shells,” Soderbergh shifts the character naivety to a journalist, who seems oblivious to Ellen’s suggestions about shell company dealings. The journalist just wants to focus on stories that are “close to a home” - a clear reference to people who avoid news stories that don't impact their daily lives, at least on the surface. Now that Ellen has decided to pursue information, she comes to the realization that even proper news outlets are naive about shell company structures. Rule Two, according to The Laundromat: Be curious about shell company concepts, and how men like Mossack and Fonseca use them to assist wealthy individuals.
The Laundromat’s third section, “Tell a Friend,” establishes how Mossack and Fonseca formed professional relationships. Here, Soderbergh explores the sharing of insider information; shell company concepts that "meek" people can't know about if they're not curious. Within the film itself, this section allows Oldman and Banderas to ham it up as performers. For Mossack and Fonseca, their big secret is that they're professional secret-keepers. Rule Three: Shell companies are successful because all parties involved value privacy, at least in theory. The Mossack Fonseca Whistleblower broke that crucial rule.
In The Laundromat's fourth section about secrets and rules, “Bribery 101,” Soderbergh provides a subplot about bearer shares and the difference between privacy and secrecy. A wealthy man, Charles, is caught cheating by his daughter, and so he makes an offer she can't refuse: a $20 million bearer share account. In the film, this section further explores secrets about shell companies. As for a societal rule, it emphasizes the idea that people have different motivations for using shell companies, maybe just to protect a secret amongst family members. Rule Four, The Laundromat implies: Those who aren't "meek" know how to negotiate.
In The Laundromat’s final section, “Making a Killing,” Soderbergh references a real-life story of corruption and murder, one that's symbolic of the bigger picture. Within the film, the China-set subplot builds tension, as two women murder a naive man to protect shell company secrets, among other business matters. This particular section sets up the long-awaited leak sequence, brief as it may be, and further demonstrates why the Whistleblower chose to reveal off-shore account information: the imbalance of money. By the end, Soderbergh delivers a meta-narrative in which Streep breaks character and speak to the audience. Rule Five: Understand the tax system and seek change. In The Laundromat, Soderbergh uses his five sections about "secrets" to establish the rules of the game for shell company fraud.
Are The Laundromat's Stories True?
The Laundromat’s first act boat tragedy is based on real events. In 2005, the Ethan Allen sunk in Lake George, New York, killing 21 and prompting authorities to investigate its questionable re-insurance policy. Soderbergh uses that true story for a fictional narrative involving Streep’s Ellen Martin. She tracks down Malchus Irvin Boncamper (Jeffrey Wright), a real-life figure who pleaded guilty to a fraud scheme in 2011. As previously mentioned, Mossack and Fonseca are based on real people, the men who orchestrated mass fraud via a Panamanian firm that ultimately shut down in 2018. Soderbergh makes them stylish figures who are symbolic of all the people they associated with.
Soderbergh’s China-set narrative in The Laundromat is based on a true story. In his version, Gu Kailai (Rosalind Chao) and her female aide poison a businessman named Maywood (Matthias Schoenaerts), the result of the man’s on-going threats to implicate Gu’s husband in a scandal. In real life, Kailai did indeed murder a man in the same fashion, only his name was Neil Haywood, and she was assisted by a male aide. For dramatic purposes, Soderbergh ends the sequence by demonstrating the relationship between shell companies, corruption, and international politics. In a bizarre twist that’s not addressed in The Laundromat, Gu presumably sent a double to her trial - a practice known as “Ding zui.” In a Netflix limited series, that subplot would undoubtedly have been explored, but not in Soderbergh's stripped down version of the Mossack Fonseca narrative.
With The Laundromat, Soderbergh doesn’t challenge viewers by detailing the darkest stories associated with the Panama Papers leak. He blends facts with fiction instead, and comically trolls Mossack and Fonseca by making them characters who are symbolic of their collective clientele: people who appear to be friendly and well-intentioned on the surface, but are secretly plotting with others to screw over "meek" individuals who don't know any better. Through character secrets and societal rules, The Laundromat suggests that taxpayers should be more cognizant about how shell companies operate.