ABC-TV pulled a rather bizarre scheduling trick when they decided to run each part of their new TV-movie Madoff — dealing with financier Bernard L. Madoff and the $50 billion Ponzi scheme he ran for decades out of what looked on the outside like an ordinary investment advising firm — just after a joint appearance of Democratic Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. If you, as I did, watched the Presidential candidates’ events — the “town-hall” on CNN last Wednesday with Sanders and Clinton being interviewed separately and the debate between them the next night on MS-NBC — and then put on the Madoff movie, you’d have seen the fascinating spectacle of two elderly Jewish men from New York (Bernie Sanders as himself and Richard Dreyfuss in an incandescent performance as Madoff), with the same first name and a strikingly similar manner of presentation, representing two wildly different versions not only of the world but what their role should be in it. Bernie Madoff represented the greed of Wall Street pushed to the nth degree; Bernie Sanders is so anti-Wall Street that (in one of the few genuinely cogent criticisms Hillary Clinton has made of him, as bizarre as it sounds to hear Clinton trying to come after Sanders from the Left) he tends to ignore the abuses of corporations and their CEO’s and managers in other sectors of the economy. Madoff focuses on the last decade of Madoff’s career on Wall Street, both the legal investment firm he ran on the 19th floor of the Lipstick Building (at least that’s what it sounded like to me, though it could have been “Lipschitz” or something similar and Jewish) and the secret headquarters he had two floors below, behind a plain white door labeled “Madoff Deliveries,” where he ran the Ponzi scheme. The film definitely takes the position that Madoff was well aware throughout that what he was doing was crooked, and simply didn’t care; I remember when a New Yorker columnist ridiculed Madoff for having said in his court hearing that he personally didn’t know when he started breaking the law, and my comment was that stockbrokers run their businesses so close to the edge of legality I could readily believe Madoff didn’t know when his actions crossed the line from being unethical but legal to being unethical and illegal. Los Angeles Times TV reviewer Mary McNamara criticized Madoff for making him too lovable — “a classic charming crook … easy enough to root for except that he was a real man who did despicable things — who cares if his back hurts so much he has to lay down a lot?” (http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/tv/la-et-st-madoff-review-20160202-column.html)
— and there’s some justice to that criticism. Director Raymond De Felitta and writer Ben Robbins have the film tied together with a voice-over narration by Madoff himself, delivered by Richard Dreyfuss with a nice touch of self-deprecating sardonicism — he seems to be telling us not to feel too sorry for his victims because they’re as greedy as he is and it’s precisely because they want to make scads of money without having to do anything for it that they’re vulnerable to his blandishments — but I didn’t really find Madoff heroic and I don’t think De Felitta and Robbins really intended us to, either.
If this movie has a hero, at least in the first half, it’s Harry Markopolos (Frank Whaley), who works for a brokerage in Boston and is assigned by his bosses to figure out Madoff’s investment strategy and back-engineer it so his employers can replicate it. He soon finds out that his firm can’t duplicate Madoff’s strategy because there isn’t one — he’s not investing in anything; he’s just paying off old investors with the revenues from new ones, the classic definition of a Ponzi scheme. (The original Ponzi scheme was run in the 1920’s by Charles Ponzi in Boston; he claimed to have discovered a way to make tons of money by trading in International Postal Reply Coupons, a way of pre-paying postage to and from other countries — before the Internet age they were frequently used if you ordered merchandise from abroad and you were often asked to include some so your purchases could be shipped to you pre-paid. But instead of actually trading in them, he just told his investors that was what he was doing.) Indeed, most of the Madoff investors never actually withdrew money from the fund; they just let it sit there and let Madoff and his staff, including right-hand-man Frank DiPascali (Michael Rispoli), tell them how much money they had made them and how much their investment in his fund had increased. And the script goes into detail, largely through Madoff’s own voiceovers, explaining his sales strategies, particularly his approach of making his fund seem like a rare opportunity — it was always just about to close — and how he was able to get people to ask him for the chance to invest in it instead of having to sell it. What Markopolos did that makes him the hero of part one of this story is that not only did he figure out Madoff (who as the chair of the NASDAQ exchange for three years had enormous credibility and clout on Wall Street) was running a Ponzi scheme, he tried to do something about it. He tried to report Madoff to the U.S. Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), which is supposed to regulate the financial markets, only when a friend of his arranged a meeting with an SEC official, Markopolos blew it by couching his case against Madoff in such abstruse mathematics the SEC guy couldn’t figure out what the hell he was talking about (and neither can we). Then he gets an interview with a financial reporter, but the article that finally gets published is basically a pro-Madoff puff piece that just questions a few incidental aspects of his operation. When the SEC, awakened by the hints of impropriety in an otherwise favorable story, finally agrees to act, they just slap Madoff on the wrist — even though writer Robbins builds a phony cliffhanger at the juncture between the two episodes and makes it seem like the whistle is about to get blown on Madoff because, as he explains in his voiceover, all they had to do to expose him is use the number he gave them of his account with the Department of Technology Services (DTS), which records all security trades, and they would have found out that he wasn’t actually trading and the whole scheme would be blown.
What finally brings Madoff down is the 2008 market crash, which panics his investors to the point where they withdraw their funds en masse. In the second part the heroes are Madoff’s own sons, Peter (Peter Scolari) and Mark (Tom Lipinski), whom he’s carefully kept out of the dealings on the 17th floor, seemingly because he wants them to believe that they’re part of an honest brokerage and doesn’t want them involved in the Ponzi scheme that’s actually making him and the entire family their money. They’re the ones who finally report them to the authorities, and Mark’s conflict between family loyalty and honesty and justice is well written by Robbins and played by Lipinski, who emerges as the most complex character in the movie. Eventually it all comes crashing down, Madoff ends in a medium-security federal prison — where, at least according to Robbins’ voiceover, he becomes unexpectedly popular because the other crooks there are jealous of him over the sheer amount of money he stole — while Peter, who’d already been diagnosed with terminal cancer when the scheme unraveled, dies of his illness and Mark, after an attempt to get over the shame of the whole thing by changing the last name of himself and his wife and children to “Mack,” hangs himself on the second anniversary of his dad’s sentencing. Meanwhile, Madoff’s wife Ruth (Blythe Danner, another old pro turning in a vivid performance) stays with him through the exposure of his financial fraud but breaks off contact once the woman he was having an affair with — who was running the Jewish charity Hadassah and whom Madoff bilked of $900 million in Hadassah’s funds — writes a tell-all memoir and in her next (and, it turns out, last) visit to him Ruth shoves the book in his face and confronts him over the affair. Madoff isn’t the overall indictment of capitalism I’d have liked (but wasn’t really expecting), but it wasn’t the glorification of Madoff as a lovable rogue Mary McNamara’s review said it was, and which the similarly plotted 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street indeed was — but then again it’s easier to make your crooked broker a charming, lovable figure when he’s played by Leonardo di Caprio than when he’s played by Richard Dreyfuss, especially at his current age and level of portliness), and I’d have wanted more in the script about how Madoff ran a classic “affinity scam” (he targeted fellow Jews just as Charles Ponzi targeted fellow Italians), saying to his victims, “I wouldn’t rip you off — I’m one of you!” But even as it stands, Madoff is a quite good movie, well directed, well written, well acted and well balanced between presenting Madoff as despicable and at least trying to make him understandable.