The Panama-based law firm that helped some of the world’s wealthiest people establish offshore bank accounts and was the source for a trove of leaked documents known as the Panama Papers has sued Netflix over its depiction in the film “The Laundromat.”
In 2016, journalists from a German newspaper obtained 11.5 million documents from the law firm, Mossack Fonseca, that exposed how some of the world’s most prominent politicians, business leaders and celebrities may have used offshore bank accounts and shell companies to conceal their wealth or avoid taxes. The reporting that resulted is the basis for the Netflix film, starring Meryl Streep as a widow whose husband’s death on a boat tour leads to her discovery of shady offshore dealings traced back from the tour operator’s bogus insurance company.
In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Federal District Court in New Haven, Conn., the law firm and its partners — Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca — objected to their portrayal in the film as “ruthless, uncaring and unethical lawyers” who engaged in money laundering, tax evasion and other criminal activities to benefit the wealthy. In the film, which will be available for streaming on Friday, Mr. Mossack is played by Gary Oldman and Mr. Fonseca by Antonio Banderas.
The lawsuit objects to the film’s characterization of Mr. Mossack and Mr. Fonseca as villains profiting from tragedies like the death of the widow’s husband, making reference to dialogue in the film’s trailer saying “it all goes back to this law firm Mossack and Fonseca.” It references Mr. Oldman and Mr. Banderas wearing “flamboyant gold colored suits” with bow ties and “laughing sinisterly.”
“The magic makes for a great story, to be sure, but the innuendo created is destructive and unfair,” the law firm claimed in court papers. “It is a moneymaker for Netflix but an irreparably harmful money-loser for the plaintiffs.”
Netflix declined to comment on the substance of the lawsuit, but the company filed a motion to dismiss it on Wednesday.
The law firm has sued Netflix for libel, invasion of privacy and trademarks violations, arguing that the law firm’s logo is placed in scenes that “allow viewers to associate it with very serious criminal and unethical behavior.” It is asking a judge to order that Netflix stop the film from being released for streaming. The film was already screened at film festivals in Venice and Toronto and has been released in a few theaters.
The story behind the Panama Papers and its moneyed cast of characters was almost certain to provide fodder for film or television. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which organized coverage of the document trove in newspapers including The New York Times, said at the time that the documents revealed the offshore accounts of 140 politicians and public officials, including several individuals with close ties to President Vladimir V. Putin. The documents named King Salman of Saudi Arabia, relatives of President Xi Jinping of China and the father of David Cameron, the former prime minister of Britain. The coverage of the documents led to the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister, David Gunnlaugsson. According to the consortium, the reporting has led to the recovery of more than $1.2 billion in penalties and back taxes in at least 22 countries.
According to court papers filed by the law firm, not all of the people implicated in the Panama Papers leak were technically clients of Mossack Fonseca. The firm said its role was to create companies and sell them off, but that they should not be painted as the villains if their clients ultimately sold those companies to “end users who were exposed as criminals.”
In court papers, the firm argues that wide release of “The Laundromat” could result in additional investigations in Panama, where Mr. Mossack and Mr. Fonseca had been jailed for several months and are now out on bail but confined to the country. It asserts that the film could taint jurors in New York, where the law partners are under investigation by the F.B.I., though they have not been charged. The firm, which had dozens of offices around the world, has been investigated by law enforcement authorities in several countries over accusations of connections to money laundering.
The film is based on the 2017 book “Secrecy World” by the journalist Jake Bernstein, who draws from the Panama Papers to detail a secretive financial system and recounts how Mossack Fonseca was exposed. Court papers name Mr. Bernstein, who is listed as an executive producer on the film, as someone who should have known the “falsity of the message” at the center of the film and called it out. Mr. Bernstein, who did not immediately return a request for comment on Wednesday, is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.