Bernie Madoff is a horrible individual that certainly deserves everything he is currently receiving, but, wow, what a good movie to showcase him and his wicked deeds.
In 2008, stockbroker, investment adviser and financier Bernie Madoff made headlines around the world when he was arrested for perpetrating the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history. HBO Films’ The Wizard of Lies chronicles the events that led up to Madoff’s admission and the devastating aftermath.
The biggest Ponzi Scheme in the history of the United States, which included the theft of $65 billion dollars from unsuspecting investors, is now produced in a two-hour HBO feature film and done so frightfully well. With a cast featuring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hank Azaria and a bevy of others, it’s not exactly a hard sell when trying to display and piece together the impact that Madoff had on so many lives, including his family. Director Barry Levinson, writers and the actors playing the parts did a helluva job with this one.
Let’s get right into it.
The first act of the story starts where Madoff’s lies end — his admission to his family about his deeds. We’re first introduced to Madoff, his sons and wife, Ruth, in this powerful scene. The groundwork of his misdeeds are laid out in the open. There’s no build-up, there’s no development, it’s simply JUST a scene where he tells everyone he loves what he has been doing since the 70s, which turns out involves stealing $65 billion dollars of investor money. Coming clean apparently is what Madoff needs to do to protect his sanity, but in a sense this scene also shows him transferring all responsibility and stress indirectly back to his family. It’s a selfish move on his part, where he doesn’t see many consequences. Again, it’s a simple, powerful scene that is made even more powerful by his family’s reaction, which is disgust.
The scene then jumps from him admitting his crimes to Madoff getting arrested. At first, you feel bad for him, as you think maybe this guy really thought he was doing something to help people out only to be caught in his own web of madness, but as everything is slowly uncovered in the first act, including the interviewing of his staff that did and didn’t know what he was up to, then you begin to pull back the sympathy a bit. The act shifts from present time to past as well, as it wraps with Bernie at a beach event with his kids demanding the best out of his waiters and demanding his kids stop asking questions about his business and enjoy the royalties of his labor. It’s a throw back to where his mind began to unravel and his hold on his bad ideas began to slip.
While visually and timeline-wise messy, the first act of the film emits a clever, methodical way of developing all characters through dialogue and action, especially his sons, as well as diving deeper into who Madoff might be towards the third act. It’s a good, yet sad beginning to a tragic story of a wicked man.
The second act refocuses itself on the family. Bernie becomes a background character in the second act, though prominent throughout, he is seen, but rarely heard, as his family comes to the forefront of the spotlight. His wife loses the only world she knows, family and pleasures, and ends up deciding to attempt to take her own life to escape it all. The attempt fails, so she continues on with what she has to live with and finds a way through. The second act then shifts to her sons and how they’re both handling things. Mark Madoff feels suffocated by all the attention the press is pushing on his family and finds no comfort in his father’s doings. Andrew Madoff tries to fall off the map and disassociate with his father completely, but sadly keeps finding his way back in thanks to the public and press. As a whole, the family is hurt and trying to find an escape from the press, their shattered life, their father’s shadow and how wrongly they’ve been pinned for their father’s misdeeds. The second act ends on a rough note, as the family prepares for their father’s trial and life after Bernie.
The second act is powerful, though at times stretched. Getting to the point where the sons are part of the story takes way too long. I’m sure life and its true situations rarely have an even flow like a Hollywood production, but at times the second act feels a bit silly, lost and unimportant in some aspects. Everything picks up the pace when the story finally begins to focus on the family that Bernie was trying to protect, but instead shattered. Focus on the sons towards the end of the second act is powerful, sad and empathetic. You wonder how Levinson let the sons hang in the story so long, when their own story and feelings about their father’s situation might have made the second act brutally powerful. Honestly, the second act almost lost me on this production, but it saved face right at the end.
As for the third act, you won’t walk away from it without feeling incredibly guilty for thinking so badly of the family. If the events of the story truly unfolded like they did and caused the disasters that ultimately befell the Madoff’s, Bernie NOT included, then you’ll feel the potential sting that his family, friends and investors felt. You’ll simply hate the man and want to hug everyone else. As far as this reviewer is concerned that’s the right feeling to walk away from this story with by its end. Levinson finally gets around to painting the perfect picture of the United States’ greatest con artist and he does it in such a way that you won’t soon forget The Wizard of Lies.
To be open and honest, folks, I didn’t enjoy watching this film after the third act go going, but it’s a damn good movie. I know that might seem confusing, but it’s a tough movie to watch towards the end. You want The Big Short or Wallstreet type of feeling where the bad man finally gets what he deserves and a Scooby-Doo-like mystery is revealed, as the good wins, but that’s not the case here. The evil man prevails. Everyone else in the world suffers. It’s an honest film with an honest ending, where the villain wins.
In short, The Wizard of Lies is powerful and disgusting all at the same time. The film does its job showing and revealing who Bernie Madoff truly was and currently is in this world. It’s a perfect story for a perfect villain.
Check it out, as it’s worth your time.