Bernie Mad­off, with no apolo­gies

Barry Levin­son’s ‘The Wiz­ard of Lies’ doesn’t make ex­cuses for a man who never ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity for his $65 bil­lion Ponzi scheme

The Washington Post Sunday - - TELEVISION - BY SCOTT TO­BIAS style@wash­post.com

When the Bernie Mad­off scan­dal broke in mid-De­cem­ber 2008, the hous­ing bub­ble had burst and the econ­omy was in free fall, clos­ing the year on a four-mouth stretch in which 2.4 mil­lion peo­ple lost their jobs — and the hem­or­rhag­ing wasn’t nearly over yet. At the time, the av­er­age Amer­i­can couldn’t make sense of terms such as “credit de­fault swaps” and “col­lat­er­al­ized debt obli­ga­tions,” and not only was Wall Street not pay­ing for its reck­less­ness, it needed a bailout from tax­pay­ers to stanch the bleed­ing.

For run­ning the big­gest Ponzi scheme in U.S. his­tory, Mad­off fi­nally of­fered a hu­man face at which to di­rect that in­choate anger. Here was a man who de­frauded thou­sands of in­vestors on a scale of nearly $65 bil­lion, in­clud­ing Holo­caust sur­vivor Elie Wiesel, who lost $15.1 mil­lion in foun­da­tion money on top of the life sav­ings he and his wife had ac­cu­mu­lated. For a time, Mad­off was, per­haps, the most hated man in Amer­ica, in part be­cause the scale of his crime was so grotesque and wide-reach­ing, and in part be­cause he came to rep­re­sent Wall Street at its most de­praved. His sins were both spe­cific and sym­bolic.

So how does a film­maker set about cre­at­ing a man out of a mon­ster? How do you find the hu­man qual­i­ties of a shame­less con artist with­out min­i­miz­ing the wretched­ness of his deeds? For Barry Levin­son, direc­tor of the new biopic “The Wiz­ard of Lies,” which will pre­miere Satur­day night on HBO, hu­man­iz­ing Mad­off wasn’t the goal so much as com­ing to grips with his ac­tions and their con­se­quences, par­tic­u­larly for his fam­ily, which reached Shake­spearean pro­por­tions. Af­ter all, it was his sons, Andrew and Mark, who alerted fed­eral au­thor­i­ties of the scheme, but were them­selves so heav­ily scorned that Mark com­mit­ted sui­cide pre­cisely two years af­ter his fa­ther’s ar­rest.

“You’re never go­ing to solve the ques­tion of what makes [Mad­off] tick,” says Levin­son, whose three­decade-plus ca­reer in­cludes the films “Diner,” “Rain Man” and “Wag the Dog.” “Look­ing at his fam­ily, I was re­minded some­what of the Arthur Miller play ‘All My Sons,’ which ba­si­cally was about a man who ul­ti­mately de­stroys his fam­ily with his lies and greed. You see how he func­tions with his wife and chil­dren, and you see a con man like you maybe haven’t quite seen be­fore. Our vi­sion of a con man isn’t a slick-talk­ing guy who’s try­ing to win you over with a smile and good spiel. He was this guy who was reluctant to have you join” his fund.

No one un­der­stands Mad­off’s pro­file bet­ter than Diana B. Hen­riques, who filed dozens of sto­ries on Mad­off for the New York Times and wrote the book on which Levin­son’s film is based. She also ap­pears as her­self in the jail­house in­ter­view scenes that frame the story, mak­ing her act­ing de­but across a thin metal ta­ble from Robert De Niro as Mad­off, the ul­ti­mate ex­am­ple of get­ting thrown into the deep end.

Her first story on Mad­off, writ­ten with Zach­ery Kouwe, be­gan, “On Wall Street, his name is le­gendary,” reg­is­ter­ing the shock of such a highly re­spected trader, who had served as the non-ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of NAS­DAQ for three terms, run­ning a scam of this mag­ni­tude. Now he’s cer­tain to spend the rest of his life in prison, where he’s serv­ing a 150year sen­tence. The more time Hen­riques spent with him, the more she un­der­stood him as a con­tra­dic­tory fig­ure.

“He lies like the rest of us breathe,” Hen­riques says. “He be­came, to me, in­creas­ingly less con­vinc­ing in his ex­pres­sions of re­morse. There’s a line in the film where he says the fact that he could have kept his world so com­part­men­tal­ized — his fraud in one box, his busi­ness in another — re­ally con­cerned him. He was able to live this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde life. He was this gen­uine Wall Street states­man, the real Dr. Jekyll, and he was also this amoral, ice-wa­ter-veined con man who sold with­out flinch­ing and who faced down near-ex­po­sure time and again, bluff­ing his way through it all.”

Levin­son and Hen­riques both strongly re­ject the no­tion that in­vestors and Mad­off’s fam­ily were will­fully blind to his de­cep­tion be­cause the re­turns were so con­sis­tently good. On the con­trary, the art of the scam was Mad­off ’s dis­ci­pline in fre­quently log­ging smaller re­turns than other funds, rather than post­ing out­ra­geous gains.

“If you wanted to be some­what conservative and make money,” Levin­son says, “he would be the place to go.” Hen­riques re­calls the words of fraud an­a­lyst Pat Hud­dle­ston, who “re­sponded in one of his talks by say­ing, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, you’re deal­ing with an am­a­teur.’ ”

Where Mad­off mis­cal­cu­lated se­verely, though, is what might hap­pen if he got caught. It’s here that “The Wiz­ard of Lies” morphs into fam­ily tragedy, as his sons cut them­selves off from him, and his wife, Ruth (Michelle Pfeif­fer), reck­ons with the dark se­crets of a man who has taken care of her since she was a teenager. Hen­riques thinks he had rea­son to be­lieve his pun­ish­ment wouldn’t be so se­vere, sim­ply based on the prece­dent set by other Wall Street crimes. The tim­ing is what made the dif­fer­ence.

“He was ra­tio­nal to ex­pect he would serve some time in jail but gen­er­ally be graded along the usual curve for white-col­lar crim­i­nals,” Hen­riques says. “It wasn’t un­rea­son­able to ex­pect that. Nor was it un­rea­son­able to ex­pect that his fam­ily would be left alone. I can’t re­mem­ber a case where the mem­bers of a con artist’s fam­ily be­came the so­cial pari­ahs that the Mad­off fam­ily be­came. I think he was blind­sided by the outrage that he had caused. I think, to some ex­tent, it baf­fled him a bit.”

“There al­ways has to be some level of de­nial,” says Levin­son, who, in­ci­den­tally, is be­ing hon­ored Thurs­day by the Wash­ing­ton Jewish Film Fes­ti­val at a screen­ing of his “Lib­erty Heights.” “I think what makes him in­ter­est­ing in a rather sick fash­ion is that this guy kept do­ing it and be­lieved he could have kept do­ing it if not for events out­side his con­trol.” The fraud “didn’t col­lapse be­cause of what he did wrong within his Ponzi scheme. It was the Amer­i­can econ­omy that col­lapsed.”

In the end, “The Wiz­ard of Lies” paints Mad­off as a man who faces the con­se­quences of his ac­tions with­out ac­cept­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for them. The trick of De Niro’s per­for­mance is to reg­is­ter the pain of his son’s sui­cide and his es­trange­ment from his fam­ily, while stop­ping con­spic­u­ously short of con­tri­tion. Anger and de­fi­ance come more nat­u­rally to the char­ac­ter than em­pa­thy.

“He’ll make a com­ment like, ‘You know, peo­ple are greedy,’ ” Levin­son says. “So he ob­vi­ously wants to shift some of the blame to the peo­ple. He doesn’t quite ac­cept the fact that [his in­vestors] were, in fact, vic­tims, and he’s to­tally re­spon­si­ble.”

“Al­ways re­mem­ber that he’s a con man,” Hen­riques says. Even when all the money is gone.

CRAIG BLANKEN­HORN/HBO

Robert De Niro stars as Bernie Mad­off, who ran the big­gest Ponzi scheme in U.S. his­tory, in “The Wiz­ard of Lies,” a biopic di­rected by Barry Levin­son. It pre­mieres May 20 on HBO.

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