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.
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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.