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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell The Wizard of Lies, Sun­day, Show­case, 8.30pm.

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

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