Skip to navigationSkip to content
Mossack Fonseca activists
Reuters/Yves Herman
Soderbergh might be a tad more subtle.
TOO SOON?

Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers adaptation is the latest movie ripped from very recent headlines

By Adam Epstein

American director Steven Soderbergh will produce, and possibly direct, a film based on the Panama Papers, Deadline reported. The adaptation will draw from an upcoming book, Secrecy World, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jake Bernstein, who was among the consortium of investigative journalists who revealed over 11 million records detailing how some of the world’s richest and most powerful people hide their money using tax havens.

While there’s no doubt it was massive global news, the Panama Papers—essentially a gigantic accounting story—might seem like a strange topic for a film. But it follows in the footsteps of recent films like The Big Short and Moneyball that took complicated, dense subjects and turned them into entertaining Hollywood productions.

More than that, though, Soderbergh’s Panama Papers adaptation is the latest in a growing slate of Hollywood films based on major real-life events that get made very shortly after those events occur.

Here’s a small sampling of recent films, including a few that will come out later this year, that are based on major global events from the last decade or so:

Film adaptationYear of filmReal eventYear of real event
Patriots Day2016Boston Marathon bombing2013
Deepwater Horizon2016BP oil spill2010
Sully2016Hudson River plane landing2009
Snowden2016Edward Snowden’s NSA leak2013
13 Hours2016Benghazi attacks2012
The Big Short2015US financial crisis2005-2007
The 332015Chilean mining disaster2010
Captain Phillips2013Maersk Alabama hijacking2009
Zero Dark Thirty2012Death of Osama bin Laden2011
The Social Network2010The founding of Facebook2003

This is not an entirely new phenomenon. All the President’s Men, for instance, came out in 1976—only two years after US president Richard Nixon’s resignation following the Watergate scandal. But if you look through a list of films based on true stories, you’ll notice that they mostly came out decades—or even centuries—after the real events occurred.

In the past, these films wouldn’t be made until society had processed and reflected upon the events, and the history books were already written. Today, they’re released while we’re still writing the history. Maybe that function is now achieved by these films themselves—instead of serving as simply an entertaining fictionalization of an event already recorded for posterity, they themselves shape how later generations will understand the history.

The age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle might have something to do with this. Major global events have become a part of our everyday lives in a new way. And Hollywood seems keen to capitalize on news while it’s still part of a broader cultural discussion, and especially while it’s still politically relevant. As important a story as the Panama Papers investigation is now, an audience in, say, 2030 might not find it all that interesting.

It remains to be seen whether today’s audiences will find it interesting as a movie, but that’s apparently a gamble Hollywood is willing to take. Soderbergh is as innovative a filmmaker as there is, and together with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns—with whom he worked on the globe-spanning (and thankfully fictional) epidemic thriller Contagion—he could adapt the still-unfolding story into a captivating film.

And when he’s finished with that, the timing will be perfect for an adaptation of the insane 2016 US presidential election.