OP-ROB RATING: STARTER
“The Wizard of Lies” is a film directed by Barry Levinson that aired this past weekend on HBO. The film stars Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff, the infamous broker and investment adviser who built the world’s largest Ponzi scheme. In just a matter of months Madoff went from being one of the most revered investors on Wall Street to pleading guilty to eleven felonies and being sentenced to 150 years in prison. Over the course of around two decades he had stolen billions of dollars from unwitting and innocent investors, some of whom lost their entire life’s savings with Madoff. For the most part, “The Wizard of Lies” is a matter-of-fact kind of biopic about Madoff, mainly detailing the period between the revelation of his scheme and his prison sentencing. However, “The Wizard of Lies” betrays its own title. The film is less about Madoff’s ability to deceive, and more about his apparent indifference to his crimes and his own family’s tragic demise.
Aside from Bernie, the main characters include Madoff’s wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer) as well as his sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow). Levinson casts Madoff’s family as victims who were unaware of Bernie’s scheme. Much of the film is about the unraveling of their respective lives, as they are treated as accomplices in the fraud. Ruth visits her longtime hair salon, where she is denied service. Andrew is verbally and physically attacked by a distraught investor while walking around Manhattan. The worst torment is reserved for Mark Madoff, who languishes in his apartment hiding from paparazzi, slowly being crushed by the weight of his father’s crime. Just a few years after their father’s arrest, Mark committed suicide and Andrew succumbed to cancer. Ruth was forced to relocate to Florida to live with her sister, having lost all the luxuries of her former life.
The devastation of the Madoff family is a point of focus in “The Wizard of Lies”, and it is a tough angle to take. A scene in which Andrew Madoff speaks to a group of college students narrows in on the difficulty of looking at the Madoff’s with compassion. One student asks Andrew, “Why didn’t you go on TV and state your case? Why didn’t you defend yourself?” to which Andrew replies, “I don’t know if I’m that sympathetic a character. At the end of the day I lived a life of great wealth and privilege… All of that subsidized by my father’s victims.” It is a poignant moment in the film, and addresses the difficulty of depicting the hardships endured by the Madoff family.
Although Levinson provides a lot of intriguing material on Madoff’s family, he glazes over much of what makes the case a recurring interest. For example, we never get a good look at what got Madoff started in the first place: his ability to earn people’s trust. De Niro’s sneering portrayal feels authentic, but is never offered a scene to depict the composure that Madoff employed to snag investors. Instead we get glances at Madoff in the final days of the scheme, when he was on the ropes trying to secure investments. Furthermore, a crucial aspect of the Madoff fraud was his ability to leech from a trusting Jewish community in New York City. In his court hearing, audible shouts from the crowd decry Madoff’s betrayal of his religious family including Elie Wiesel, an Auschwitz survivor and the author of “Night”, who had invested everything with Madoff. Madoff’s exploitation of his religious community is important in understanding the final point of the film, yet “The Wizard of Lies” provides little more than references that must be plucked from swathes of dialogue.
“The Wizard of Lies” also doesn’t offer much insight into the paradoxical nature of the scandal. Anyone who is familiar with a Ponzi scheme knows one thing: it will eventually fail. Yet Madoff never planned an escape route, or even thought of one to begin with. Why would you rob a bank without a getaway car? From my viewing, I think “The Wizard of Lies” is missing an adequate explanation for the banality of evil. A 1988 Dutch murder-mystery film called “Spoorloos” or “The Vanishing” expounds on this topic when the filmmakers flip the script and follow the logic of the killer. Throughout “Spoorloos”, we discover that the killer, who seems like a normal guy, committed murder for the same reason anybody might twiddle their fingers or stretch their legs. Perhaps Madoff is cut from the same cloth as the villain from “Spoorloos”. Perhaps he started his scheme because he could. No goals, no pleasure, no intent, just because.
The ending of “The Wizard of Lies” takes a swing at the idea of “Spoorloos” when it suggests that Madoff is a sociopath. In an interview with a reporter in prison, Madoff steams about a New York Times article that compared him to the mass-serial killer Ted Bundy. The film ends as Madoff asks the reporter, “Do you think I’m a sociopath?” The reporter’s response is not provided, but we have an idea for ourselves as the camera lingers on Madoff’s emotionless face. The man betrayed his family, his friends, and even his entire religious community. What values could he possibly have?
Ultimately, “The Wizard of Lies” is a very good film. It is crisply shot, methodical, and well-acted. And yet, it somehow feels unfulfilled. Madoff ruined thousands of people’s lives and a crime of such magnitude demands a reason. Unfortunately, the most plausible one is simply, just because. “The Wizard of Lies” is a noble attempt to breathe life into such a vapid explanation, even if it misses a few notes here and there.