Review: The Wizard of Lies (2017)


The Wizard of Lies (2017)

Directed by: Barry Levinson | 127 minutes | biography, crime, drama | Actors: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Diana Henriques, Nathan Darrow, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Kostroff, Kathrine Narducci, Steve Coulter, David Lipman, Kelly AuCoin, Don Castro, Michael A. Goorjian, Sophie von Haselberg, Hank Azaria, Jane Dashow , Kristen Connolly

Bernie Madoff is a man who sees a trade in everything. The asset manager who was arrested in 2008 for a mega-fraud, and who is in the lick until the end of his life, has set up a lucrative business in chocolate. Insiders label him as a ‘star in prison’. “He has pushed back more money than anyone in history. Among the other thieves, he is revered as a hero.” Madoff (1938) led Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, which he founded in 1960. This company was one of the largest market-making firms on the US stock exchange NASDAQ. Madoff was arrested by the FBI on December 11, 2008 for fraud. He is accused of defrauding his clients by ponzi (a method of defrauding people by offering an investment in which the monies paid out are (partly) financed from the deposit of new clients; comparable to a pyramid scheme) for about 65 billion dollars through the asset management arm of his company. This asset management was separate from his trading activities as a market maker on the NASDAQ. The amount of 65 billion makes this case – if true – the largest individual investment fraud ever. Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison for this fraud…

Within a year, two TV movies about Madoff appeared; ABC released the miniseries ‘Madoff’ (2016) starring Richard Dreyfuss as the fraudster and HBO then released ‘The Wizard of Lies’ (2017), in which Robert De Niro takes on the role of Bernie Madoff. And even though both productions share the same story, they are quite different from each other. While ‘Madoff’ mainly revolves around what the investment fraudster has been up to, ‘The Wizard of Lies’ mainly focuses on the person Bernie Madoff, and in particular his relationship with the people who are close to him, such as his wife Ruth and their sons Mark and Andrew. This TV film is based on the book of the same name, published in 2011, by Diana B. Henriques, financial reporter for The New York Times. The interview she had with Madoff while he was in prison also forms the framework for the film. Mrs. Henriques plays herself and she is given a crucial role in the film, in that she tries to torture Madoff with her sharp questions in such a way that he not only tells what exactly he has been up to, but also that he acknowledges that he has destroyed the lives of his clients and his family with his criminal activities. The only problem is that he has his completely own view on the matter. His victims are greedy maniacs who have dug their own graves. He also claims to have done everything to keep his family out of harm’s way by not telling them about his illegal activities.

The Wizard of Lies focuses on the Madoff family and how Bernie’s fraudulent practices affect their lives. Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer) is so used to her luxurious life full of privileges that she cannot and will not understand why everyone is suddenly turning their backs on her. Even her hairdresser suddenly has no time for her anymore, because he is afraid of damage to his image. Sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow) reportedly didn’t know anything about the shady business their father was involved in, but they’re head over heels when the cesspool opens. For example, Mark gets into a fight with a blogger who firmly claims that he and his brother were fully aware of the fraud practices. The choice to highlight the people in Madoff’s immediate environment has consequences for the way in which the ‘anonymous’ victims are portrayed. They don’t get much further than angry shouts, threatening looks during Madoff’s nightmares and court statements knitted into one joint statement. In fact, after the financial malaise, they are once again wronged by portraying them so superficially in this film.

Director Barry Levinson is an actor director. The man behind, among others, ‘Rain Man’ (1988), ‘Bugsy’ (1991), ‘Sleepers’ (1996) and ‘Wag the Dog’ (1997) knows exactly how to direct an actor to a top performance and the acting of De Niro and Pfeiffer, but also of the other actors, is therefore of high quality. De Niro portrays Madoff as a bitter, cynical psychopath who has no idea what havoc he has wrought in the lives of everyone who has partnered with him. Even for his own family, his compassionate capacity proves to be wafer thin. De Niro is in his element in this role and Levinson often puts him vis à vis with an opponent for a stimulating confrontation. Finally another successful performance by De Niro!

The TV movie itself evokes mixed feelings. Despite the excellent acting performances, the idea that there could have been more in this is strongly predominant. The how, what and why of Madoff’s actions remains silent on that. In the absence of any kind of explanation, it becomes a more or less interchangeable drama about a criminal and his family. The fact that the many victims Madoff made with his fraudulent actions have been simplified to peripheral damage is something inconsiderate. In the very recent past, in films like ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013) and ‘The Big Short’ (2015), we saw how financial crimes could be effectively filmed. Both films rigorously explain what’s happening and why, and explain even complex facts, all without getting boring, complex, or pompous. The Bernie Madoff case actually deserved such a thorough approach.

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