“The explainer movie” is the biopic of our times

Movies like ‘The Laundromat’ don’t want to tell a story; they want to explain something like tax dodging.


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“The explainer movie” is the biopic of our times

Movies like ‘The Laundromat’ don’t want to tell a story; they want to explain something like tax dodging.

“So how does it all work, this world of offshore companies?” Antonio Banderas asks, staring directly into the camera in The Laundromat, Steven Soderbergh’s new biopic about the Panama Papers.“First you must ask yourself,” continues Gary Oldman in a crazed German accent, “are you wealthy?” Soon, the screen is filled with retro graphics depicting the way shell companies shield the assets of some of the world’s richest. Money of all denominations rains down. It’s as if we’re watching a commercial for Swiss bank accounts.

Suddenly, we’re in a dingy insurance office in Lake George, New York. Meryl Streep, playing a widowed retiree, has recently lost her husband to a freak boating accident. But, an insurance man tells her, because the boat was owned by a company using a fraudulent insurer — in fact a series of shell companies set up to hide the megawealth belonging to a client of Mossack Fonseca (a Panamanian law firm which specialized in tax avoidance) — no settlement will be paid to her. Streep is devastated, wearing the genuine numb exhaustion that comes from such a loss. The plans she’d made to survive widowhood are dissolving in front of her. “I don’t understand how they can just walk away from any of this,” says her insurance agent. “They’re the ones getting away with murder.”

This is how the movie goes. Instead of the typical biopic format, Soderbergh has built a series of vignettes around an ensemble of fictional characters who represent stand-ins for the average people who are affected by wealthy tax avoidance and the corruption it allows. Stringing these scenes together are Oldman and Banderas’ narrations and frequent direct-to-camera interruptions. Their dialogue attempts to so dumb the story down to its barest parts that in the first scene, they explain the very concept of money. (“What is a medium of exchange?” Oldman asks. “It could be a slip of paper with words on it.”)

While a Streep/Soderbergh team-up on international corruption may sound like a recipe for a showy Oscars picture, The Laundromat isn’t really concerned with “art.” Soderbergh has only two goals: to make sure you understand offshore tax avoidance, and then to make sure you’re pissed about it. It’s broken into chapters, aided by zippy graphics which illustrate the way money moves (literally) through this system, and the addresses to the audience are so frequent that it’s impossible to miss the film’s message even if you’re watching while scrolling on your phone. The Laundromat is concerned with informing above all else, and it deserves inclusion in a new genre: The Explainer Film.

A consumer does not arrive as a blank slate and suddenly demand to be catered to a certain way. Instead, we are all constantly adjusting to what we are being fed — and as of late, our diet is far too much for any one body to digest. After a day of being inundated by news stories about corruption and listening to podcasts about cold case murders, I don’t want to unwind with Spotlight; I’d rather re-watch Vin Diesel growling about family in Furious 7. The pop culture recommendation machine now caters to this instinct, building lists for what to watch while not really watching.

The Biopic has long been a popular genre, especially around awards season, but there’s a growing trend of movies based on specific news stories of the very recent past. Of the nearly 20 based-on-a-true-stories being released this Oscar season, five (including The Laundromat) are about stories that were in the news in the last ten years. There’s The Report about the journalistic exposing of the CIA torture report; Dark Waters, based on the 2016 story about a lawyer exposing deaths linked to DuPont Chemical; Just Mercy, based on the 2014 book by Bryan Stevenson about death row exonerations; and Bombshell, about the abuse allegations against Fox New chief Roger Ailes, is the second major fictionalization about its topic to be released this year. These movies aren’t new — All the President’s Men was released in 1976 — but their proliferation, at this moment in time, is notable.

The subtle shift into full-on explaining is no surprise then, especially when a story like the Panama Papers is too big to be fully digested. The scandal itself was too wide-reaching, encompassing too many issues for even those who cared to fully grasp; it also dropped just as the 2016 election was starting to crest. Understanding exactly how companies like Mossack Fonseca functioned meant understanding complicated and extensive tax laws and practices that were designed to be indecipherable. While the more dramatic bits — clients ranged from El Chapo to pig-man love activist David Cameron — generated decent coverage when it first broke, three years on it hardly has household familiarity. The Laundromat offers viewers who missed or misunderstood the story a second chance: sit back and let Meryl Streep tell you all about taxes.

The first Explainer Film about a widely misunderstood, globally consequential scandal, at least in the modern era, was Adam McKay’s The Big Short, released in 2015. (2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street was a forerunner, with its to-camera narration and attempt to distill the story of a knotty crime, though the scale wasn’t as dramatic.) The global financial meltdown of 2008 wasn’t undercovered or unappreciated, but like the Panama Papers, the actual center of the story rested on impossibly complicated and arcane economic practices specifically invented to deceive. To make it clear, McKay also used direct-to-camera addresses, graphics montages, and kept a heavy focus on narrative details over character. Celebrity cameos appeared at moments when the specifics got too heady — here’s Selena Gomez to explain collateralized debt obligations! — and consistent voice-over made sure we understood why exactly we needed to be mad.

The Big Short was a smart and compelling satire that earned a Best Picture nomination and won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. McKay’s follow-up, 2018’s Vice, was also an awards favorite, though far more critically divisive. The film tries to accomplish too much at once: Instead of focusing on one specific part of Dick Cheney’s legacy to clearly illustrate a broader point, McKay is concerned with explaining every step of Cheney’s career. It’s all there: constant voice-over narration, to-camera asides, graphics and titles on-screen that feel straight out of a documentary. There’s even a baffling musical number that hit the cutting room floor, which plays like live action Schoolhouse Rock. Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, inside a congressional cafeteria, explains to Dick the rules of climbing the ladder while Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes belts about… climbing the ladder.

Here, the Explainer model fails without one specific material concept to untangle. The terrible legacy of a capital-D Difficult Man is exactly what a character study is for, and while Christian Bale’s Cheney was fascinating to watch, the character was hardly given room to breathe between McKay’s constant tone shifts and conflicting stylistic flourishes. When McKay stages a trick ending only fifty minutes into the film to make a point about the harm Cheney could’ve spared us if he’d only stopped striving when he became Halliburton CEO, I didn’t feel like I was learning anything but the director’s personal fantasy for an altered history. Vice struggled under the weight of everything it thought it needed to explain, not realizing that the situation didn’t call for a lesson — it needed a prosecution.

Explainer movies at their worst end up feeling similar to a John Oliver monologue or an episode of Vox’s Explained series.

The critic Pauline Kael frequently railed against message films, taking issue with the way they indulge audiences and make people feel like good citizens through an act as passive as watching. “It’s a way of taking movies back into the approved culture of the schoolroom––into gentility,” she wrote in her 1969 essay “Trash, Art, and the Movies,” while using the example of historical war dramas and other movies that make a viewer feel “decent and virtuous.” Kael was talking about movies like 1982’s The Verdict, a redemptive courtroom drama starring late-career Paul Newman which she called “so impressed with its own high seriousness that it has a hushed atmosphere.” Her biographer Brian Kellow has said that she would have hated a modern message movie like The Help. But issue movies of prior eras at least tried to communicate something through narrative art, even if that art was frequently saccharine and reductive.

By contrast, Explainer movies at their worst end up feeling similar to a John Oliver monologue or an episode of Vox’s Explained series (which Netflix won’t take long to suggest if you search for The Laundromat.) Some citizens have decided to meet a national distrust of the news media by loudly exalting the value of “facts,” largely a liberal fantasy that the truth is a fixed, neutral thing. Facts are now so important in our civic life that the teaching of them is developing into an aesthetic quality in our art. Movies are assessed on their content’s “importance” at the expense of their artistic skill or their contribution to the form.

But the Explainer film is exactly the biopic for our era. With too much news to digest and too much entertainment on offer to distract from it, this type of movie is a new avenue through which to get our information. Whenever being reasonably informed means sitting through an economics or civics lesson, we might as well do it in a plush recliner with beautiful actors as our teachers. We hardly have the time for much else. The Laundromat is only 90 minutes, and rumor has it Netflix is already testing a feature that could let you watch that in double-speed.

At the end of the film, we’re on a studio backlot. Meryl (having played a dual role, both the everywoman who leads the crusade against Mossack Fonseca and a low-level employee at the firm) removes her secretary’s costume – thick sunglasses, a long wig, a prosthetic nose – to reveal her curly blonde retiree. She reads a statement given by the anonymous whistleblower who leaked the Panama Papers. Then, she arrives to a director’s chair on a soundstage coated in green screen. She removes that costume, drops her last accent, and speaks to us as Meryl herself. “Now is the time for real action,” she says, shaking out her hair, before striking a pose that mirrors the Statue of Liberty, grasping her script like Lady Liberty’s tablet. “Reform of our broken campaign finance system cannot wait.” Class dismissed.

Jameson Rich is a writer and video producer in New York. He previously wrote about drinking water for The Outline.