HBO aired a brand new entry from its film division a few days ago which was Saturday May 20th. They called it Wizard of Lies, and the lead was Robert De Niro as the infamous Bernie Madoff. Michelle Pfeiffer c0-starred as Ruth Madoff.
Most of us remember Mr. Madoff’s fall from grace. And that’s being kind. Madoff was the kingpin in the biggest Ponzi scheme in recorded history. His Asset Management firm gobbled up literally billions of US dollars ($64.8 Billion to be accurate), and in return gave their clients fake statements as documentation of the fake trades.
Madoff took their investment dollars and deposited them into his account at Chase Bank. When a client requested a withdrawal, Madoff paid them out of the money in the Chase account. In a sense this was a never-ending ‘take money from Peter to pay Paul’ scheme with an infinite number of replications.
In Madoff’s own words – It’s a fraud. Basically a big Ponzi scheme. There were no trades, no investments. I made it all up.
Madoff is now known as Prisoner 61727-54 serving out a 150 year sentence in a medium security federal prison in Butner, N.C. which is outside of Raleigh, NC.
The film opens with Madoff being interviewed in this prison by a NY Times reporter – Diana Henriques – who would go on to write a non-fiction book about Madoff and his exploits. Henriques appeared in the film as herself.
Basically this interview established the framework of the film. Our perspective was the interview and then a flashback to the day before Madoff was arrested by the FBI and taken out of his swank Manhattan penthouse in handcuffs. They didn’t show us the ‘perp walk’ but we didn’t need to see it.
From there we see the interview continued as well as the flashbacks. Basically we never saw the day-to-day operations or said a different way – the nuts and bolts of how this huge scam was perpetrated.
We also didn’t see much of the victims who lost millions to Madoff. It wasn’t until the sentencing phase of Madoff’s trial that we saw the victims –
He discarded me like I was road-kill…
He took our entire life savings…
So mostly this was a family drama. De Niro’s Madoff was all internalized struggles. Madoff had this terrible secret which he had to keep from his family and closest friends. There was a line that Madoff said to the reporter – For 16 years I kept this secret from my wife, my sons. How I was able to do that and maintain any degree of sanity…
The film was kind of a Grand Guignol of greed. One might understand how a Madoff might temporarily sink to the depths of this kind of behavior. Oh he did say that he intended to make things right – but he never did. The deception rolled unchecked and unabated for years. Of course there were accomplices – back office types that created the make-believe statements and trade confirms.
Bernie had his penthouse apartment in Manhattan, a swanky beachfront estate in Montauk Pt, NY, an elegant home in the south of France, cars, yachts, jewelry – he even had enough watches to wear a different one each day of the month.
And yet – the film manages to evoke sympathy from the viewer. Not for Bernie, of course – but for Ruth Madoff, and the two sons Andrew and Mark – one of whom committed suicide by hanging himself, and the other died of lymphoma cancer.
De Niro portrays Madoff with an icy steeliness. You simply can’t feel anything for this guy. His 150 year sentence seems to be insufficient. Pfeiffer plays Ruth as a helpless woman who never had to learn to do anything on her own except
to be a hostess at elegant soirees, or to shop for jewelry.
We don’t see much of the trial, or how the case against Madoff was put together. In the simplest of terms, Madoff’s sons turned their father in. Really they had no choice – Turn in him, or be charged as accomplices.
I thought Wizard of Lies was well made and watchable. There wasn’t really much they could do about drama or suspense but that generally comes with the territory of real-life crime stories portrayed in films or tv.
Check out the trailer: