The Laundromat and The Report: Two Takes on the Docudrama
Every so often, Hollywood makes two films that have a very similar subject matter, despite being largely unrelated. One is almost always better, either critically, financially, personally, or some combination of the three. A Bug’s Life is better than Antz. Fyre is better than Fyre Fraud Finding Nemo is miles better than Shark Tale. Through these comparisons, we are given the opportunity to investigate how various differences in production can result in vast differences in the quality of the final product, despite a similar premise.
Amazon’s The Report and Netflix’s The Laundromat aren’t really twin films, but they do have striking similarities. Both films tell the story of a complicated real-life event. The Laundromat, which went into theatres in late September before coming to Netflix in mid-October, follows a widow who investigates an insurance fraud, chasing leads to a pair of Panama City law partners exploiting the world’s financial system, resulting in the release of the now infamous Panama Papers. It’s directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns, and produced by the pair, among others. The Report, which enters theatres this weekend (11/15) before streaming on Amazon Prime on at the end of November, follows Senate staffer Daniel J. Jones, who is chosen to lead an investigation into the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques following the attacks on September 11th, 2001. It’s written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, and produced by, you guessed it, Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns. Similar creative heads. Two recent, important, and confusing document leaks. These films should be fairly similar - if not standard - docudramas. So, how did we get two films that are so different?
In case you haven’t been paying attention, it’s pretty clear that Soderbergh is in a bit of an experimental stage of his career. The Laundromat is no different. Sure it’s not shot on an iPhone, but the film has a unique structure, being presented as a fourth wall-breaking lesson narrated by Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas’s Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca, the men behind the shell companies exposed in the Panama Papers. Throughout the film, they stop the flow of the narrative - often with over-the-top exuberance and humor - to explain key concepts to the audience. Oldman and Banderas have a blast firing off one another as they explain money laundering and shell companies, not unlike The Big Short. It adds charm and entertainment to a film that otherwise requires a great deal of background knowledge on the financial system to understand what’s going on. Soderbergh also breaks up the film into three segments, each telling how different people around the world were affected by Mossack Fonseca. The central thread, of course, being Oldman and Banderas as well as Meryl Streep as the aforementioned meddling widow. It’s like a unique globe-trotting collection of short films that all (theoretically) comes together at the end to indict a corrupt financial system.
The Report takes what you might call a more traditional approach. It’s an on-the-ground view of an elaborate political investigation, spiced up with some non-linear storytelling and an excellent central performance from Adam Driver. But unlike in The Laundromat, Burns doesn’t do much in the way of information dumps. Acronyms, names, and legal terms are thrown at you a mile a minute. The film doesn’t take the time to make sure you’re caught up and it certainly doesn’t turn towards the camera and try to explain anything to you. Instead, Burns assumes that you’ll pick up what you need to know as Driver’s Dan Jones get deeper and deeper into the investigation. It takes time to understand what’s happening and it does require diligence, but by the end, I found myself naturally absorbing the information and diction I needed to understand the central problems.
And there lies the difference between The Laundromat and The Report, and why I ultimately found the latter to be much more engaging. The Laundromat attempts to explain its central plot unnaturally, forcing the information on the viewer in an aside and then presuming that they’ll be engaged in what happens next. When done effectively (say, via Margot Robbie in a bubble bath) it can be an easy tongue-in-cheek way to disseminate information. But with even a small miscalculation, it makes the film feel disjointed and makes it difficult for the viewer to become absorbed by the story. I found myself struggling to care about the central plot elements of The Laundromat, because the entertainment was in the sidebars with Oldman and Banderas. I didn’t really care about Streep’s character. Thus, when the shoe finally drops and everything comes together, I found it very difficult to connect what was happening now to what had happened to Ross Geller and Bernard from Westworld over an hour ago. Ultimately, this causes the final message and rally cry at the end of the film to feel underwhelming and undeserved.
In contrast, The Report frames everything - even the flashbacks - in the context of Dan Jones and his investigation. Through Driver’s performance, I observed how each step in the story related to what had happened before. When Dan Jones became frustrated, I knew why, because I saw the consequences of the CIA’s actions. We go on a journey with Dan Jones and we learn as he learns. There was emotional and personal context to each decision and action that culminated in a similar concluding message and rally cry to the one made in The Laundromat. But instead of shrugging and moving on with my day, I felt the weight of the film. I had an emotional understanding of the events, even if I could have used a few zany characters to explain some of the more jargon heavy government proceedings.
I wasn’t able to identify my problem with The Laundromat until I saw The Report. And that’s the power of comparing two films, even though one should do it carefully. I saw The Report in a theatre where I was able to give it my full attention, whereas I saw The Laundromat sitting in my living room with my phone in my hand on a lazy Sunday. So there is something to be said about how a theatre viewing makes it easier to buy into a film. And I do think that The Laundromat has a larger hurdle to leap given that much of the knowledge surrounding the Panama Papers is not common knowledge. The Report is able to tether to ubiquitous events that anyone with at least one working eye or ear has heard of (i.e. 9/11 or the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). So is it a perfect comparison? No, but it’s a comparison that helps emphasize the need for emotional understanding in order to focus a film. Both The Laundromat and The Report are written by Scott Z. Burns to clearly and concisely teach its viewers and take a stand on a timely social issue. One is a tight, well-paced, and thrilling film with a powerful performance at its center. The other has Meryl Streep with a wig and a fake nose.
In one line: While both The Laundromat and The Report attempt to make sense of complex real-life events in recent history, only The Report is able to cohesively stitch together a narrative that is as emotionally effective as it is informative. (Okay, that was a bit more than one line).
You can hear more from Matti by checking out The Movie Marathoners Podcast on Spotify, iTunes, Podbean and more! Find him on Twitter and Facebook at @moviemarapod!