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‘The Report’ and ‘The Laundromat’: Two sides of American fraud and corruption

Meryl Streep in “The Laundromat.”
Meryl Streep plays a recent widow tracking insurance scammers in “The Laundromat,” one of two films from Scott Z. Burns and Steven Soderbergh this season that deal with systemic fraud and corruption.
(Claudette Barius / Netflix)

“The Report” follows zealous congressional staffer Dan Jones on his mission to produce a tome detailing CIA-backed torture following the 9/11 attacks. “The Laundromat” drills into the 2016 Panama Papers revelations exposing how Panama City lawyers Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca created fraudulent tax shelters to hide assets for millionaires and corrupt politicians.

While both movies target the systematic betrayal of American values, the darkly comedic “Laundromat,” directed by Steven Soderbergh from a Scott Z. Burns script, and the unflinching “Report,” written and directed by Burns with Soderbergh as producer, frame their information-dense stories in completely different ways.

Burns, speaking from his home in New York, said, “I believe that tone is somewhat dictated by point of view and vice versa, so when the decision was made to tell ‘The Report’ from the point of view of [Senate staffer] Dan Jones, it required a sort of ‘70s thriller vibe that would keep the heat on and generate tension. For ‘The Laundromat,’ Steven and I wanted Fonseca and Mossack to guide us through this world of financial fraud and that required a very different tone. We wanted them to be like game show hosts.”

For “The Report,” Burns pegged his narrative to Adam Driver’s performance as Jones, who takes the deep dive into CIA malfeasance on behalf of the Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening)-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. His 6,700-page report ultimately found that the torture the CIA was using was not leading to any useful information.

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“The first time I met Adam,” Burns recalled, “I said, ‘Imagine you’re a carpenter and you’re given a dusty blueprint of something very elaborate to build. You go into your basement and you build and build for years and years, and this thing is very complicated and you finally step back and look at it and you realize you’ve built your own gallows.’ That was sort of the Kafkaesque assignment that Dan Jones was given, and Adam really connected with that.”

Soderbergh recommended Driver after directing the Indiana-raised ex-Marine in the 2017 heist film “Logan Lucky.” “Adam Driver radiates obsessiveness,” Soderbergh noted. “He’s very thorough in his work, very diligent about preparing and making sure that what he does feels believable. He’s got this kind of quasi-messianic aspect of someone who, when he gets interested in something, there’s no off switch. I just bought him as a guy who would sit in a basement for five years looking at documents.”

Obsessed truth-seekers feature famously in an earlier generation of politically charged conspiracy thrillers, so Burns modeled the look and feel of “The Report” after classic American forebears. “In the weeks before we started shooting ‘The Report,’ I had my entire crew over to my house, where we watched ‘All the President’s Men,’ ‘The Parallax View’ and ‘Three Days of the Condor,’” Burns said. “I wanted to convey a sense of paranoia in ‘The Report,’ and those incredible films by Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet have an aesthetic built to hold a lot of tension and information.”

Anchored by Driver’s single-minded portrayal, “The Report” gains intensity with flashbacks picturing the torture of suspected terrorists including Gul Rahman, who died in captivity. “In my early drafts, I hoped I wouldn’t have to show any of that [torture] because, unless you tread carefully, it’s so powerful it could take over the movie,” Burns said.

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“But in doing my research, I spoke to Alberto Mora, general counsel for the United States Navy. He said the original sin is that the CIA destroyed these [interrogation] tapes because they knew if people saw what they did, it would have been over. He told me, ‘If you don’t show this, then you are compounding the sin.’”

In shaping the tone for “The Laundromat,” Soderbergh turned his lack of expertise about tricks of the financial fraud trade into a storytelling asset. “Scott and I both came at this kind of economic activity ‘fresh’ would be the kind word, ‘cold’ would be more accurate,” he half-joked.

“That informed our approach. In thinking about the most entertaining way to transmit this information, Scott came up with the idea of Fonseca and Mossack being the present-day equivalents of Rod Serling and “The Twilight Zone,” except they’re dressed a little better and the stories take place all over the world. Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas are both very charming guys, and it’s such a stylized piece that I felt a certain amount of theatricality was appropriate for their performances.”

“The Laundromat” immediately signals its cinematic lesson plan with a full-screen graphic declaring “The Meek Are Screwed.” Banderas and Oldman, dressed in elegant white suits, jauntily recap the history of money, starting with cavemen, against a frothy music backdrop from composer David Holmes, modeled per Soderbergh’s request on the score for the 1978 Neil Simon-Herbert Ross movie “California Suite.”

“I told David, this is exactly what I want the score to sound like: piano, bass, drums, flute and that’s it,’” Soderbergh said. “I think you could make the case that if you’re unhappy after the first three minutes of this movie, then you should just get up and leave, because we’ve given you the grammar of how we’re going to tell this story.”

Hewing to an overall bleak-comedy framework, Soderbergh varies his visual style to distinguish one chapter from the next. Particularly with Meryl Streep’s portrayal of a woman victimized by insurance scammers after her husband drowns in the 2005 Lake George boating tragedy, which transforms itself in the final minutes with a startlingly earnest reveal.

“After 87 and a half minutes of jocularity, the movie pivots in that final shot and ends up in a space that I hope people will find surprising,” Soderbergh explained. “Scott and I talked about Meryl’s performance as being like a Russian nesting doll that kept revealing something else underneath it. How could we visually represent that and push it aside all at the same time? The trick was to first employ artifice and then make a case for stripping away all of the artifice.”

That plot twist allows Streep to articulate a sense of outrage by giving voice to words lifted directly from the manifesto issued by Panama Papers hacker “John Doe.” It’s a stirring speech, but three years after the leak, business, politics and society at large remain ethically untethered, as Soderbergh sees it. “The terrifying thing is that what we’re seeing right now is bigger than any given system,” he said. “Human beings have a substance abuse problem. The substance is power and the result is corruption.”

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“The Report” lands in theaters this weekend with particularly pertinent resonance as Washington, D.C., wrangles over fresh whistleblower accusations. “Accountability and the responsibility of Congress to provide oversight of the executive branch — that’s a big part of what ‘The Report’ is about,” Burns noted.

“Unfortunately, we’ve come to regard oversight as a political maneuver, but it’s really not political at all. If there’s evidence that a crime was committed, you need to investigate that. This is the duty of our elected officials.”


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