Television Madoff’s madness and De Niro’s masterclass
Robert De Niro’s portrayal of American financial fraudster Bernie Madoff represents a masterclass in acting
This is not only a wonderful period for television drama but, as a new HBO docudrama persuasively reveals, the made-for-TV movie is also making a triumphant comeback, with the cable network at the forefront of a “promising time in filmmaking” according to Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson ( Diner, Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man).
The Wizard of Lies is the compelling story of stockbroker, investment adviser and financier Bernie Madoff, who made headlines across the world in 2008 when he was arrested for perpetrating the largest financial fraud in US history.
Madoff cheated his clients out of almost $US65 billion as part of a complex and intricate Ponzi scheme, a fraud that involves paying old investors with funds from new ones.
The fine two-hour film is directed by Levinson from a script by Sam Levinson, John Burnham Schwartz and Samuel Baum. Dual Oscarwinner Robert De Niro plays family patriarch Bernie Madoff, and Michelle Pfeiffer (Golden Globe winner for The Fabulous Baker Boys) is Ruth Madoff, Bernie’s long-time spouse and unwitting partner during the events that would lead to financial ruin for countless people and institutions, as well as his and his family’s destruction. Sentenced to 150 years’ jail, abandoned by his family, he is now in prison with kidney disease waiting to die, though he still plays mind games with the Wall Street press.
The massive scheme was exposed after he told his sons about it, apparently suffering remorse, but more likely knowing time had run out after the global financial crisis. On legal advice they contacted the FBI.
Struggling to deal with the revelations, Mark Madoff (played in the movie by Alessando Divola) hanged himself in his apartment on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest, as his twoyear-old son slept in the adjacent room. (The sequence of the discovery of his body in the movie is one of the most horrific imaginable.) His brother Andrew (Nathan Darrow) died last year after a long battle with cancer.
The series is based on New York Times journalist Diane Henriques’s book The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust. The first reporter granted on-the-record interviews with the fraudster after his arrest and incarceration, Henriques says she wrote “this almost Shakespearean tale” motivated by two new perspectives about the way this kind of epic fraud happens. She wanted to combat “the comforting but false” notion that someone like Madoff is a breed apart, a monster that any sensible person should be able to recognise and avoid. And she hoped her readers would gain “a deeper appreciation of how we deceive ourselves and how our utterly unrealistic pursuit of certainty in an uncertain universe — always the underlying promise of every con artist — leaves us vulnerable to men like Bernie Madoff”.
The movie is certainly true to her objectives, an emphatic cautionary tale that is taut, constructed with great cinematic intelligence, and sharply executed, moving seamlessly back and forth in time.
De Niro’s Madoff reveals the fatal charm of the man, but he is nothing like the classic Ponzi personality, what Henriques calls “the flashy gladhanding salesman of our stereotypes”. He gives us a self-effacing, modest, low-key kind of guy who, when cornered, which happened rarely, could bully — though his colleagues called it “niggling”. Much of the time, in De Niro’s hands, Madoff just seems elderly, self-deluded and confused — a man he who lived much of his life in dread.
“It was almost like — it sounds horrible to say it now — but I just wanted the whole world to come to an end,” he says. “When 9/11 happened I thought this was the only way out; the world would come to an end and everybody would be gone.”
This is a film that benefits from its documentary reality, and the continuing involvement of Henriques, who plays herself in the movie — she holds her own during the riveting exchanges in prison with De Niro that bookend the script. The interview scenes, according to Henriques, were improvised: “Bob is having to answer those questions extemporaneously, out of Bernie Madoff’s brain.”
Levinson’s direction is highly inventive without becoming disturbingly ostentatious and credit must be showered on editor Ron Patane for fluidly managing segues between the many styles and flourishes of director of photography Eigil Bryld. The best of many stunning sequences is a nightmare scene when Madoff and his wife attempt suicide by consuming bottles of the sedative Ambien, the TV set in their bedroom playing Meet Me in St Louis featuring Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, that ode to seasonal melancholy.
In another stunning scene a family tragedy takes place off-camera while a cigarette discarded by Ruth Madoff burns away in an ashtray. Levinson depicts another crucial scene as a reflection in Madoff’s spectacles.
It is utterly absorbing film to watch, with Levinson capturing Madoff’s emotional journey through most of the events almost totally in close-up, at times strangely impassive, at others just containing that sense of dismay. Sets and costumes fade away and we lose ourselves in the landscape of De Niro’s face, exploring every nuance of expression, searching for emotion in the depths behind the eyes. It is his best performance for some time, a masterclass in acting.
“It’s important not to indicate,” he once said. “People don’t try to show their feelings; they try to hide them.” And that is what he does here; his control as an actor is awesome.
“What he did is beyond my comprehension so there’s disconnect somehow in him, and I still would like to understand,” De Niro says. “I did as best as I could.” His Madoff is the latest in a long string of roles in which he has seemingly lost himself to play a character.
Pfeiffer does something similar as his wife, the actress bearing, like De Niro, an uncanny likeness to the real person, a woman seemingly eternally bound to be a liar and a cheat. “He’s my lifetime; he’s my whole entire memory,” her character says when asked why she can’t leave him. It is a beautifully restrained performance of terrible sadness.
We are watching real exchanges, as close to what actually happened as screen time and reportage allow. There is a touch of the detective story about it, even though the culprit is known to us from the beginning as well as the eventual outcome of the investigation. Levinson provides a narrative with its own built-in conflict, mystery and suspense.
How much did the family really know? Why did Bernie decide to throw in the towel? Was Ruth complicit, as the world at large assumed? Does it make psychological sense that Ruth and her sons were knowing accomplices? What will happen to all their lives? How can they be made to pay if they were complicit? How can they cope with the pain of the family break-up, the constant attention of the press and the vindictive social media? And were his investors actually accomplices, as Madoff claims, and he himself a victim of a rigged financial system?
It is the exchanges between the people, and the way Levinson subtly and subjectively takes us inside their lives, that comprises the heart of the story. And the tension draws us in on an empathetic level. We move back and forth between them within the tug of war of scenes, feeling their anguish and their pain.
While it appears to be a film about a massive financial fraud, potentially a dry and confusing subject relating to the machinations of Wall Street, it is really about the characters caught in this unique relationship. And what rivets our attention and holds it for more than two hours of viewing time is our ambivalent, vicarious response to them.
As Darrow’s Andrew says, it is the story of the family, but it is a hard one to tell when there are so many other stories of even greater tragedy and heartbreak.
“There are three of us,” he reflects after Mark’s suicide, “but thousands of victims.”
Michelle Pfeiffer as Ruth Madoff in The Wizard of Lies
Robert De Niro as Bernie Madoff in The Wizard of Lies