The Wizard of Lies

Year: 2017
Studio: HBO
Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Sam Levinson/John Burnham Schwartz/Samuel Baum
Cast: Robert De Niro, Hank Azaria, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola, Kristen Connolly, Lily Rabe

There's nothing like a pop culture friendly term on which to hang a realistic story. Official terms that were all but unknown before some high profile case made them enter the common lexicon abound, from 'collateral damage' and 'new world order' to 'lockdown' and 'social distancing' (revisit this review in 5-10 years and see how many COVID19 movies there are.

One of the most recent that went as fast as it came was 'Ponzi scheme'. I'll bet crooked securities trader Bernie Madoff never dreamed back in the early 90s when he and Frank DiPascali started a fake investment fund that one day one of the greatest actors alive would be playing him in a screen retelling of his tale.

It begins right before the proverbial hits the fan. Robert De Niro plays Madoff as a bit of a closed book, never giving you much insight into him as a man and why he did what he did, though we can assume it was plain old greed.

After decades of rejecting both his sons' offers to run things, putting them both offside and threatening to fracture the whole family, they both learn that he intends to distribute tens of millions to staff as bonuses. When they confront him about it, knowing the company is having trouble finding the money to pay redemptions to clients, he admits to them that the $65bn investment fund he's been running for select clients for decades is a house of cards, and it's about to come toppling down.

The boys turn Madoff into the FBI as he seems to desire, and then we see how it's all come about through flashbacks of the recent past. Director Barry Levinson, from a script by Sam Levinson, John Burnham Schwartz and Samuel Baum, doesn't appear to be too concerned with the deeper psychology of the characters – although some very seasoned performers quite aside from De Niro give the workaday proceedings great weight.

It's based on a non fiction book about the case so you can presume there are a few flourishes to heighten the drama, but I couldn't see any reason to believe it's not pretty faithful to what actually happened. Among the most effective bombshells is that Madoff ran the scheme with only his right hand man DiPascali (Hank Azaria) complicit in the crime, everyone else at the company and in Madoff's own family blissfully ignorant.

But another telling details (which again, Wikipedia seems to confirm about the true case) was how long Madoff should have been suspected for. An analyst at the SEC did the sums around 1999 and reported to his bosses that the returns Madoff was booking were mathematically impossible. There's something similar in the film where DiPascali is waiting for a phone call from the SEC where a very visible detail that would expose the whole thing is on display, and he's just hoping they're too inept or lazy to see it.

It's a small detail but it's actually pivotal, very efficiently conveying the corruption of a system that allows someone like Madoff to do what he did – as long as lots of people are making lots of money, everyone from investors to authorities will turn a blind eye to any malfeasance.

After the climactic courtroom scene where Madoff stands and offers a contrite defence but accepts responsibility, a fictional Hollywood thriller would present a ray of hope. I can't remember if it's made explicit in the movie, but cross wealthy people or threaten their riches and watch out – Madoff got 150 years in prison.

It's a tragedy what happened to the rest of his family and the wife he had to cut loose (Michelle Pfeiffer) who didn't have any idea how to take care of herself, but it's always fascinating seeing good actors portray a real story by such an experienced director. None of it's very cinematic and there's nothing outstanding in the screencraft apart from it seeming pretty authentic, so you're only there for a story well told.

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