Those of you with access to HBO’s lineup may now view Robert De Niro’s latest film, The Wizard of Lies, where he assumes the role of Bernie Madoff. The two-hour movie and takes viewers on a tour of the events leading up to and following his incarceration as the sole mastermind behind the largest Ponzi scheme to ever come crashing down. Not until the day when Social Security becomes insolvent will so much money vanish in the breath of a confession. Just a few minutes into the movie, De Niro comes clean: “there’s no way to say it. None of it is real. It’s all one big [expletive deleted] lie.”
The HBO special comes a little over a year after ABC treated viewers to its own miniseries exploring the life of this infamous fraudster. Over two parts, Madoff treats viewers to a stellar performance by Richard Dreyfuss. De Niro delivers a different yet satisfying take on Madoff in a shorter medium. Dreyfuss was a narrator and tour guide. De Niro is simply relaying his tale through a different storyteller – the reporter interviewing him in prison.
Most readers will recall the Madoff scandal, but for those who do not or whose memories are fuzzy, the man lost his empire and his freedom during the 2008 financial crisis. His was a unique case – while other bankers and financiers passed off their shady dealings as legal, Madoff made no attempt to cast what he did as anything other than a crime. The film explores how he managed to run his scheme for over a dozen years, and the reasons why it all crumbled into scandal. Most of the plot centers on the father, his wife, and their two sons. The director relegates the tales of the victims, regulators, and law enforcement personnel to brief footnotes at the end of each act.
As a financial thriller, the movie is slow but intentional. De Niro’s performance on top of a subdued yet tense soundtrack anchors the film. Mrs. Madoff, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, injects a degree of sympathy into the Madoff’s situation from early on in the plot. Her helpless, clueless persona contrasts with that of her two sons, who while equally powerless are intelligent enough to realize the magnitude of what their father has done and the severity of what their family is experiencing.
The director, Barry Levinson of Rain Man, The Perfect Storm, and Man of the Year fame, has an agenda for this film. Unfortunately, it is hard for this viewer to say definitively what that agenda is. The movie casts Madoff’s family as his greatest victims, and in doing so invites the viewer to feel sorry for Bernie himself. In one of De Niro’s lines, we get a glimpse of how Levinson may feel. “It was the height of the whole anti-Wall Street hysteria and they needed a villain, they needed a face for the whole mess they created. That face became me.” Sympathy for Madoff? Perhaps not at all. More likely, this is a call to consider the hundreds if not thousands of other Wall Street executives who crossed ethical lines and were never held accountable for their actions.
The Wizard of Lies is not for everyone. It is a dark, methodical, finance drama which eschews the technical details that define movies like The Big Short or the humor and excess of The Wolf of Wall Street. Since it is based on a true story, the film cannot get by on mystery or intrigue the way Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko can in Wall Street or its sequel. Instead, the director focuses on the interpersonal relationships surrounding Madoff – spouse, father, and brother. He does this while weaving an uncomfortable subtext of sympathy for the family, whose fates are inseparable from Bernie’s in spite of their innocence. Coming away from the movie, you are left with the feeling that Madoff is only behind bars because he wanted to be there. How many others just like him are still out there, thieving and living a lie?