‘The Laundromat’: Getting the dirt out
Meryl Streep in ‘The Laundromat’

Steven Soderberg opens his new Netflix film The Laundromat with a tragedy. The husband of Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) and twenty other passengers die when their boat ignominiously sinks.

That tragedy is only the tip of the iceberg. Streep seeks to resolve her deceased husband’s economic situation. But every way she turns, the widow is stymied by the layers of corruption that greed and malfeasance have spawned.

Boat business partner David Schwimmer has purchased faulty insurance. “I tried to buy what I needed for less,” apologizes Schwimmer. The cheap insurance company that he used, supposedly located in Houston, has changed ownership several times. Now it is under investigation for fraud, is no longer allowed to sell insurance, and has no assets.

Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman in ‘The Laundromat’

Intrepid everywoman Streep hops on a plane to Nevis, West Indies, pursuing a settlement with the company’s new head, played by Jeffrey Wright. But before she can recover, bigamist as well as fraudster Wright is arrested for running a shell company, as he shuttles between his two completely different families, one in Nevis, the other in Miami.

Undaunted in her pursuit of justice, Streep continues to follow the money—or at least where the money should be. She encounters bribery, tax fraud, offshore tax evasion, the massive pervasive corruption of lawyers and politicians, and shell companies.

Caribbean businessman Charles uses bribery to smooth over his adulterous affairs. Rising Chinese politician Bo Xilai fulminates that “history will not be kind to those who steal from the people.” But he and his wife Gu Kailai are found to have used fraud, bribery and perhaps even murder to advance their personal fortunes.

We are shepherded through this dizzying triptych by the film’s moderators, the fraudulent lawyers Mossack (Gary Oldham) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas). Oldham and Banderas use the dramatic convention of breaking the fourth wall. Through the film, they speak directly to us, the audience, explaining the action and educating us in the host of illegalities used to swindle unwitting commoners. Their comments are often comical, astute and enlightening. But they are always apologists for their legal actions.

After all, the actual law firm of Mossack and Fonseca used their influence and money to write and bend laws worldwide to favor the interests of corporate criminals. With offices all over the world, but coordinated out of Panama, they had taken advantage of that country’s negligent regulations to set up over 300,000 offshore corporations, committing countless crimes and questionable economic practices.

As one of the characters tells us at the film’s conclusion, “Democracy’s checks and balances have failed…. In our system the slaves are unaware both of their status and their masters.” In 2018, 60 of the largest companies in the U.S. paid no taxes on pre-tax income of $79 billion.

But how can this unjust system be fixed when politicians, whose job it is to fix it, depend so heavily on campaign contributions from the very elites who want them to write laws to evade action and enrich themselves?

The Laundromat tells us and shows us that reform of America’s broken finance system cannot wait. Now is the time for real action, declaims the film’s star. Instability could be just around the corner. It starts with asking questions, changing laws and enforcing them, the 96-minute film optimistically opines. But the most important question the film raises is that when the system doesn’t work, wouldn’t it be time for a new system?

The trailer can be viewed here.


Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for many years. He taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU.