The Laundromat movie: Fraud in the age of Invictus Obi – Toni Kan

Let us quickly consider a few names:

Charles Ponzi – Italian

Bernie Madoff – American

Jurgen Mossack – German

Ramon Fonseca – Panamanian

Invictus Obi – Nigerian

What do these names have in common?

Fraud!

Mossack Fonseca & Co was a Panamanian law firm and self-styled corporate service provider. Said to be, at one time, the world’s fourth largest provider of offshore financial services, it was made infamous by the Panama Papers leak of 2016.

The Panama Papers was made up of 11.5 million documents in which 214,000 shell companies were named. Many rich as well as Politically Exposed Nigerians were mentioned in the documents.

And now Steven Soderbergh has given us a movie; The Laundromat, a biographical drama with a comic flavour which focuses on three stories out of the many that brought down Mossack Fonseca. Out on Netflix, the movie has gained serious talkability even though critics are divided as to its artistic merits and biographical fidelity.

Steven Soderbergh must rank alongside Olive Stone as two of the foremost American directors mining history, both contemporaneous and not so, for cinematic materials. Soderbergh is famous for the movies – Erin Brokovitch, Traffic, Che and the Informant amongst others.

Soderbergh continues with his exploration of the biographical format with The Laundromat which even though focusing on  the Mossack Fonseca debacle presents three inter-related stories about a grieving widow and insolvent father and son, an unfaithful African billionaire (played by an oleaginous Nonso Anozie) and vengeful wife of a corrupt Chinese bureaucrat.

But the main theme is financial malfeasance and we get a clear sense of it from the opening scenes where the duo of Mossack (a very camp Gary Oldman with a German accent) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas) narrate the story.

Soderbergh’s playful, quirky and experimental style is on full display in a movie that walks a thin line between the real and the surreal. There is a distinctively avant garde cinema feel.  

The Laundromat comes two years after Barry Levinson’s The Wizard of Lies which starred Robert De Niro as Bernie Maddof the disgraced ponzi scheme artist who died from lung cancer before he could begin his 125 years prison term. Levinson and Soderbergh’s movies often riff on greed and morality, exploring the nexus between both and how even well-intentioned investments can become entangled in labyrinthine financial conundrums as is the case with the grieving widow (Ellen Martin played by a delightfully amazing Meryl Streep).

What are Shell companies? What do offshore tax havens mean? What does 419 mean in the Nigerian penal code and what is the American equivalent? Why do resource poor jurisdictions like Seychelles and the Cayman Islands and Mauritius serve as havens for the rich who do not want to pay taxes? Watch The Laundromat and the movie will provide a masterclass in wealth management and financial finagling.

Steven Soderbergh movie is a cautionary tale and one which every fraudster wannabe will do well to see. It is particularly instructive for Nigerians especially in the wake of the Invictus Obi and Mompha saga as well as the EFCC’s ongoing war against scammers and fraudsters.

But what stands out in a critical consideration of The Laundromat is Mossack and Fonseca’s motive for becoming what they became. They were driven by a need to cater to a market that requires a service and in providing that service they display an uncanny knack for survival and avoiding scrutiny.

“I wanted to save the world…Saving the world as it turns out is very hard work and perhaps the world doesn’t want to be saved…We want to be righteous but we want to get ahead. Such is our struggle. At some point you decide that it might be easier to just save yourself. So, I became a lawyer to the not-so-meek.”

It takes smarts to be a criminal, white collar or blue. And it also takes courage to keep on going and this is where the Mossack Fonsecas and the Invictus Obis and Momphas of this world part company; their definition of courage.

In The Laundromart, when Mossack is told that the government of Costa Rica wants to take over a house that belongs to a dangerous Mexican drug lord, we see the usually unflappable lawyer almost shit himself as he scrambles to make things right.

“Pablo Escobar is like a child nursing at his mother’s tit compared to this man.”

The Invictus Obi and Momphas of this world think that courage is the absence of fear when actually courage comes from a recognition of fear and a facility for controlling it.

The Laundromat is history told in a bit of a hurry with large dollops of melodrama. The sting is still fresh, the dramatis personae are still alive and bristling. News is that Mossack Fonseca has sued Netflix and Steven Soderbergh for $10m “for alleged defamation, false advertising and trademark violation.”

Having seen The Laundromat, one is left to wonder – can a Nollywood movie about Invictus Obi be too far behind?

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