The Laundromat

Another spin with Meryl Streep

3 Stars

By © Jane Freebury

In shapeless, comfy clothes and floppy grey wig, Meryl Streep is barely recognisable in her latest film, The Laundromat. It’s not a big role, but it is consistent with a career inclined towards the portrayal of independent women.

As a housewife, Ellen Martin, whose husband drowns in a boating accident, she comes to realise that she has been dudded by the life insurance company. An unlikely late-life warrior with a bit of steel in her, she has the spirit to take her complaint to the source, direct to head office.

The Laundromat is based on the story of Mossack Fonseca, the company that was at the centre of the ‘Panama Papers scandal’, the scandal that in 2016 exposed widespread use of offshore tax havens.

Ellen’s story is one of three in this new Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s series, Traffic) film about how money laundering works and the impact it has. The screenplay is by Scott. Z Burns who wrote and directed The Report, about the endorsement of torture by the CIA post 9/11.

The Laundromat also relates a significant subject, and is put together by very talented people, including Gary Oldman as Mossack, Antonio Banderas as Fonseca, and Matthias Schoenaerts as a British businessman who Chinese clients get the better of.  It is watchable and has its moments though it is largely delivered as jaunty farce. The crime caper tone sets the film at odds with itself.

Streep is good, of course. There’s not a lot for her to do really, except to lend her stellar presence to a good cause.

It will be interesting to see her in the next new film from Soderbergh that is due out this year. It could be edgy. After five decades of work, after the reams of words written, after the accolades that garland her career, Streep seems, more and more, to be up for anything.

She first stood out in a small part in The Deer Hunter, a Michael Cimino film of 1978 that was one of the first to open up on the impact the Vietnam War had on veterans back home. Around the same time, she played a Holocaust survivor who had been forced into an unspeakable decision (Sophie’s Choice), and then lent dignity to a young mother in a wrenching custody battle that touched on gender roles and parental rights (Kramer vs Kramer). Opposite Jeremy Irons in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, she was simultaneously tragic Victorian fallen woman and a liberated married actress having an affair.

By the time she took the role of nuclear power whistle blower and union activist in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood of 1983, Streep had already made it, big.

Ellen Martin (Meryl Streep) asks passerby (Jeffrey Wright) for the street address of Mossack Fonseca

Out of Africa with Robert Redford mid-decade was an extravagant big budget splash that she didn’t need to make. Even though she is often best remembered today for that soap opera in the hills of Kenya, the films that complemented her talents were the other, far better titles that had come out earlier.

Streep mastered Polish in Sophie’s Choice and Danish in Out of Africa, but she doesn’t always nail it. In the role of Lindy Chamberlain in Evil Angels, her Australian accent didn’t work for me. Admittedly, Australian is a big ask, that many actors cannot manage, landing somewhere near Cockney English. Streep is in good company.

There was a period from the late 1990s to the early 2000s when she less visible, probably focussed on her teenage children. There was a spectacular return afterwards, with Mamma Mia! and a performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady that earned her a third Oscar.

Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award more often than any other actor. She has an outstanding 21 nominations. The two closest runners-up in nominations, Jack Nicholson and Katharine Hepburn, with a paltry 12 each. In her lifetime, Hepburn won four Oscars, but Streep, who has three, has just turned 70 and there is still time to at least equal the record.

The late Pauline Kael, film critic for The New Yorker, was a famous detractor. but she wasn’t around to see Streep as an aging rocker in Ricki and the Flash five years ago. It was a cracker of a performance, and as Streep has observed, she can sing better than Madonna.

The Laundromat is streaming on Netflix

First published in the Canberra Times on 9 May 2020. Also broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7 

*Featured image:  Mossack (Gary Oldman) and Fonseca (Antonio Banderas)

The Report: a record too hot to handle

M, 120 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The missing middle word in the title of this strenuous and thoughtful film is torture. The inconvenient truth of it redacted, just like the videotape records of CIA ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ destroyed in the years after September 11.

No, not a spoiler. Just letting you know about the really unsavoury backstory to this 7,000 page report into CIA activities.

Based on real events post 9/11

Based on real people and real events, The Report is about how researchers working for the Senate Intelligence Committee compiled an official report inhouse into the methods used by the government’s intelligence agency while interrogating terrorists and terror suspects detained after 9/11.

Adam Driver hits the spot as Dan Jones

A lot of young Americans stepped up to join the defence forces or otherwise help after that national catastrophe, including a young graduate student, Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who switched his studies to security overnight.

the real Dan Jones has set up an organisation to promote transparency and good governance internationally

As a young everyman who wanted to help protect the homeland, Driver is an inspired choice. We already had him pegged as an engaging, versatile and intelligent actor, and though we get to see little other dimension to his personality outside of work, he is always interesting to watch. Late in the piece we see him jogging through a Washington park, and that’s about it, but Driver is a nuanced and expressive actor as the bureaucrat whose job became his all.

Incidentally, the real Dan Jones has left the public service and set up an organisation to promote transparency and good governance around the world.

As a Senate staffer, Jones led the team investigating the CIA use of torture in the wake of 9/11. It may well have been the last thing a patriotically inclined young citizen sought, but he was lucky to be under the guidance of Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), an admirable, thoughtful and supportive boss. After a long a distinguished career, the real Feinstein is the oldest serving member of the US Senate.

CIA videotape records had been disappeared

The tapes of interrogations had been disappeared or destroyed, but, incredibly, the written records still existed, and it was these that Jones and his tiny team trawled through for years to come up with the facts. It was no easy job. They had to face bureaucrats disinclined to help, or simply resistant, and work in the windowless bowels of some departmental basement.

When has torture ever worked? Did it ever work in Vietnam or South America?

What they found on the page is translated to scenes that are mercifully short. Feinstein and the team found themselves asking if torture ever worked. Did it ever work in Vietnam or South America? The film leaves you in no doubt, and has a dig along the way at Zero Dark Thirty for concluding that it had led to Bin Laden.

If waterboarding works, then why was it necessary for a prisoner to undergo it 183 times, Feinstein asks. A reasonable question, no one had thought to ask it of the two contract psychologists who were freelancing its use. This notorious method and mock burials and the rest has become ‘a stain on the values and history’ of the US in the years since.

The Report is written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, whose writing credits include The Bourne Ultimatum, Side Effects and will soon include the new Bond film, No Time To Die.

Despite the welcome presence of Bening, there is nothing glamourous to this shadowy world of intelligence gathering. With its chilly palette and serious, weighty tone, The Report is in the tradition of work in the wake of the Watergate scandal, like All the President’s Men, and after the release of the Pentagon Papers (on US involvement in Vietnam), like The Post.  Typically, it’s mostly chilly interiors and the forbidding facades of impenetrable Washington government buildings in the frame.

A stain on American history and values

When the report is released, other senators, including the late John McCain, (famously a former long-term prisoner of the North Vietnamese) lend their support to it and condemn the use of torture, and its stain on American values and international standing. The noticeably warmer glow in the frame at this point, is unfortunately undercut by some final revelations.

This is smart stuff, wordy and engrossing – and non-partisan – with a great message for governments to own their mistakes. It can feel like sitting on a jury, listening to the arguments back and forth, but in the final analysis, The Report is in no doubt about the position it takes.

First published in the Canberra Times on 17 November 2019