×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘The Panama Papers’

Alex Winter's absorbing documentary is about how the new corrupt elite who are hoarding the world's wealth off-shore got dragged into the open.

Director:
Alex Winter
With:
Bastian Obermayer, Frederick Obermaier, Marisa Taylor, Jack Blum, Jacob Borg, Roberto Eisenmann, Katrin Langhans, Joseph Menn, Scott Bronstein, Kenia Porcell, Ron Wyden.
Release Date:
Oct 6, 2018

Official Site: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8951058/

Shell companies. Off-shore accounts. Hidden tax shelters. All in shady countries with lots of palm trees but not much in the way of legal inspection or surveyance. Over the years, many of us have become familiar, at least in theory, with the nuts and bolts of how wealthy corporations and individuals avoid paying taxes by rendering their profits invisible. But as you watch Alex Winter’s galvanizing documentary “The Panama Papers,” which deals with the revelations contained in one of the most important document dumps of the 21st century, the camera pulls back (metaphorically speaking) to show us what’s really going in with all that hide-your-assets-in-tropical-anonymity dirty business.

It started off as something that criminals did — like, for instance, drug kingpins, who have always needed a legitimate cover to clean and store their mountains of cash. In many ways, they pioneered and set the template for how to conceal profits in tax havens. But as time went on, others, who were less obviously criminal, followed their lead, imitating the gangsters’ tricks and techniques. Those others now include national political leaders from around the globe and the wealthy elite.

The Panama Papers” is a lively and level-headed exposé, but it’s also a moral inquiry into how the top echelon is now united, structurally and spiritually, in robbing the rest of us blind. The film hits us with a statistic that may be familiar but is still startling: the fact that since 2015, the richest one percent of the world’s population has more money than the other 99 percent combined. Just think about that. It’s outrageous, it’s unjust, it’s just plain wrong — but the hugely significant fact is that when wealth becomes that concentrated, a system of invisible accounting for the elite is no longer merely the banking equivalent of a naughty off-shore playground. It has literally become the system.

The film opens with Bastian Obermayer, an investigative reporter for the Munich-based newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, explaining how he was contacted in 2015 by a digital whistleblower. The whistleblower, who claimed to have no links to any government or intelligence agency, called himself John Doe and was looking to expose a data archive of 11.5 million documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The firm represented dozens of figures from 200 countries, including presidents and princes. A few of its clients: Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria; Nawaz Sharif, the president of Pakistan; Vladimir Putin; Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the prime minister of Iceland; David Cameron Mitchell, the prime minister of Britain; and Donald Trump.

A word about the Trump discovery. The basic Trump property that Mossack Fonseca dealt with was the Trump Ocean Club, a Panama hotel used (like most of Trump’s international properties) for money laundering. On some level, all very routine. But for those in America who are still getting used to what the Trump presidency means, there’s a tendency to view him as a uniquely shameless and unprecedented figure. “The Panama Papers” captures how Trump’s rise is part of something larger — how it was anticipated by trends and forces from around the world, and I don’t just mean Brexit. The movie is about the rise of a newly globalized class of world leader for whom the looting of their own countries, along with a more generalized corruption, is all sliced from the same pie. It’s behavior that we once associated with banana republics, but the point is that it’s not just tin-pot despots anymore. It’s turning into the new normal.

Alex Winter, the actor-turned-director who has made several incisive documentaries about the nexus of morality and technology (“Downloaded,” “Deep Web”), doesn’t allow “The Panama Papers” to get lost in the kind of technical financial detail that would make our brains glaze over. Instead, he focuses on a journalistic question: When material like this becomes available, how should it be covered and presented to the world? The film highlights the increasing dangers of lone-wolf journalism by capturing a new archetype: More than 300 reporters, many of them members of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (created 20 years ago, and now a network extending to over 60 countries), came together to investigate and present the Panama Papers. The idea was: There’s strength in numbers. On April 3, 2016, they published their findings and analysis, and the story blew up. It went everywhere and wound up winning the Pulitzer Prize.

“The Panama Papers,” which has Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”) as one of its executive producers, features a handful of rich dramatic moments, like Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the boyish Icelandic prime minister, being caught out by two reporters when he was clearly not used to dissembling on this level (he could have used a master class in it; Vladimir Putin should teach one), or the UK’s David Cameron spending several days attempting to explain his way out of the revelations about his off-shore accounts. There are indications that the Cameron scandal may have been a factor in tipping England’s voters toward Brexit.

And then there’s the tragedy of Daphne Caruana Galizia, the veteran blogger in Malta who on Oct. 16, 2017, was killed for her fearless commentary about that country’s leader. It was an ominous crime, suggesting that threats to journalists in the new era are only going to rise. That’s what happens when power becomes concentrated. Then again, “The Panama Papers” captures and celebrates a different concentration of power: that of the journalists who’ve begun to band together by thinking globally, following the money as it travels — and does its best to hide — around the world.

Film Review: 'The Panama Papers'

Reviewed on-line at Hamptons Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary), Oct. 6, 2018. Running time: 96 MIN.

Production: An Epix release of a Bungalow Media + Entertainment, Trouper production, in association with Zipper Bros. Films and Field of Vision. Producers: Alex Winter, Glen Zipper, Robert Friedman. Executive producers: Laura Poitras, Charlotte Cook.

Crew: Director, screenplay: Alex Winter. Camera (color, widescreen): E.J. Enríquez. Editor: Weston Cadwell. Music: Pedro Bromfman.

With: Bastian Obermayer, Frederick Obermaier, Marisa Taylor, Jack Blum, Jacob Borg, Roberto Eisenmann, Katrin Langhans, Joseph Menn, Scott Bronstein, Kenia Porcell, Ron Wyden.

More Film

  • Olmo Teodoro Cuaron, Alfonso Cuaron and

    Alfonso Cuarón Tells Why His Scoreless 'Roma' Prompted an 'Inspired' Companion Album

    Back around the ‘90s, “music inspired by the film” albums got a bad name, as buyers tired of collections full of random recordings that clearly were inspired by nothing but the desire to use movie branding to launch a hit song. But Alfonso Cuarón, the director of “Roma,” is determined to find some artistic validity [...]

  • Berlin Film Festival 2019 Award Winners

    Berlin Film Festival 2019: Nadav Lapid's 'Synonyms' Wins Golden Bear

    Israeli director Nadav Lapid’s “Synonyms,” about a young Israeli man in Paris who has turned his back on his native country, won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale on Saturday. The Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize went to François Ozon’s French drama “By the Grace of God,” a fact-based account of the Catholic Church [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    Box Office: 'Alita: Battle Angel,' 'Lego Movie 2' to Lead President's Day Weekend

    “Alita: Battle Angel” is holding a slim lead ahead of “Lego Movie 2’s” second frame with an estimated four-day take of $29.1 million from 3,790 North American locations. “Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” meanwhile, is heading for about $25 million for a domestic tally of around $66 million. The two films lead the pack [...]

  • Marianne Rendon, Matt Smith, Ondi Timoner

    Robert Mapplethorpe Biopic Team Talks 'Fast and Furious' Filming

    Thursday night’s New York premiere of the Matt Smith-led biopic “Mapplethorpe” took place at Cinépolis Chelsea, just steps from the Chelsea Hotel where the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe once lived — but director Ondi Timoner had no sense of that legacy when she first encountered him in a very different context. “When I was ten [...]

  • Bruno GanzSwiss Film Award in Geneva,

    Bruno Ganz, Star of 'Downfall' and 'Wings of Desire,' Dies at 77

    Bruno Ganz, the Swiss actor best known for dramatizing Adolf Hitler’s final days in 2004’s “Downfall,” has died. He was 77. Ganz died at his home in Zurich on Friday, his representatives told media outlets. The cause of death was reportedly colon cancer. More Reviews Sundance Film Review: Stephen K. Bannon in 'The Brink' Film [...]

  • Steve Bannon appears in The Brink

    Sundance Film Review: Stephen K. Bannon in 'The Brink'

    Stephen K. Bannon drinks Kombucha (who knew?), the fermented tea beverage for health fanatics that tastes like…well, if they ever invented a soft drink called Germs, that’s what Kombucha tastes like. In “The Brink,” Alison Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall, rise-and-fall-and-rise-of-a-white-nationalist documentary, Bannon explains that he likes Kombucha because it gives him a lift; he drinks it for [...]

  • Walt Disney Archives Founder Dave Smith

    Walt Disney Archives Founder Dave Smith Dies at 78

    Walt Disney Archives founder Dave Smith, the historian who spent 40 years cataloging and preserving the company’s legacy of entertainment and innovation, died Friday in Burbank, Calif. He was 78. Smith served as Disney’s chief archivist from 1970 to 2010. He was named a Disney Legend in 2007 and served as a consultant to the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content