Netflix’s financial crime documentary Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard poses the question: why join MI6 when you can enjoy all the glamour and security threats of the James Bond life as a journalist?
Streaming from Friday, Passion Pictures-produced Skandal tells the multi-year tale of Financial Times journalist Dan McCrum’s (pictured) investigations into German fintech darling Wirecard.
If you’re not familiar with the story you’re in for a treat: think All The President’s Men meets The Big Short. If you are familiar, there’s something for you nonetheless – Press Gazette overheard FT staffers at the Wednesday premiere in London’s Mayfair commenting to one another on the new things they’d learned from the film.
Here’s the very short version of the Wirecard saga: a turtlenecked “Steve Jobs of the Alps” founds a digital payment company which doesn’t do very well and decides to become a very successful, index-listed criminal enterprise instead.
Its attempts to maintain that success result in the use of private detectives, hired thugs, Russian intelligence and German law enforcement being set after McCrum and his fellow protagonists.
FT editor Roula Khalaf told Press Gazette after the film that despite the FT branding, her paper wasn’t making any money from Skandal! – they simply felt it was important to get the story out there.
But besides the journalistic kudos, Skandal! certainly won’t hurt the FT’s reputation as a place to work. The tale of Wirecard’s downfall is told against a fast-changing background of high-end restaurants, international destinations and a brief detour through County Durham. In an era of journalism redundancies and office sell-offs, there’s impossible glamour in McCrum hopping on a plane to Singapore simply because the story compels it.
McCrum makes for an endearing hero – like Bob Woodward with a cotton jumper and “your sister’s nice boyfriend” energy. No doubt helped by having told these stories innumerable times, he punctuates his narration with some well-honed similes: a late-stage attempt by Wirecard to buy Deutsche Bank was, in McCrum’s telling, like robbers eschewing a getaway car in favour of simply taking over management of the bank.
A broad and colourful cast help drive the movie. A pair of punk US short-sellers waltz into Wirecard’s Pennsylvania offices for a snoop; a father-son investor team in the East End facilitate contact between FT investigations editor Paul Murphy and the shadowy Wirecard COO; pro trader and agent of chaos Nick Gold stumbles on-set from a Cannes beach to balls everything up.
Former FT editor Lionel Barber also drops in, in an amusingly M-like manner: statesmanlike behind a desk, he recalls instructing McCrum and Murphy after they survive Wirecard’s attempt to discredit them: “Next story I want you to draw blood.”
There’s a danger, presenting viewers with the phrases “Financial Times” and “digital payments”, that they might switch off. But the film works hard to bring pace and humour, as well as some Netflix true crime magic, to its subject matter.
Like The Big Short before it, difficult financial concepts are deftly explained through vignettes to help the audience keep up. And comic book-style cartoons step in where footage is absent, enlivening what might otherwise have been countless extended sequences of McCrum looking frustrated at his keyboard.
What could have been a slightly overlong final act is sustained through the sheer bonkersness of its content. When McCrum informed the audience that the story got “weirder and weirder” while he was benched for an internal investigation, it didn’t prime me, personally, for the appearance of former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz or the chief of Libyan foreign intelligence. (It didn’t prime me to really understand it, either: the coda was very fun, but felt like the least substantiated part of the story.)
But all in all it’s good news, journalists: the small pantheon of fun movies about our trade has grown one larger.
Skandal! Bringing Down Wirecard is out on Netflix on Friday 16 September, 2022.
Picture: Financial Times
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