Okay, we know that the story of Bernie Madoff and his Ponzi scheme is kind of old news by now. With all the news coverage, special reports and the like we got the story a number of years ago, including being schooled on what a Ponzi scheme even was. However, the story still looms large and people are still shocked by it and HBO isn’t even the only one that was eager to delve into Bernie Madoff nine years later. ABC presented his story in 2016 as a miniseries starring Richard Dreyfuss. HBO now takes its turn with Robert De Niro in the role.
Quite honestly, this writer was only interested in THE WIZARD OF LIES because it was on HBO (and I don’t miss HBO Films presentations) and because Mr. De Niro thought it good enough to appear in his first Made-For-TV-Movie. I also thought it a treat to be able to catch Michelle Pfeiffer as well. Last I saw of her was 2013’s The Family with De Niro.
So we begin where the movie does with Diana Henriques of the New York Times (playing herself here) interviewing Madoff on 8.24.2010. Those interviews are the basis of the non-fiction book and the source material for this film. They share the title THE WIZARD OF LIES. From that moment we witness flashbacks to how this criminal was exposed and jailed. In fact, I confess that the best part of the movie is its first half-hour. It is in those minutes that we see Bernie Madoff (De Niro) sensing that the heat is on and pulling his sons Mark & Andrew (Alessandro Nivola & Nathan Darrow) into his office. He can’t tell them there and calls Ruth (Pfeiffer) to be ready to receive them back at home. It is there that he explains that the whole kit and caboodle was a big scam worth billions! Learning of the deception the sons turn him in to the FBI and the evil scheme is busted.
But the jail interview and the flashbacks keep going back and forth and we are back to the summer of 2008 with a strong look at how Bernie treats family and guests and the results are not very good. Then we go to December 2008 and get a montage of victims of Madoff’s Ponzi racket and a sense of how it affected their lives ever after. Then off to Christmas 2008 when Bernie & Ruth failed to commit suicide via an Ambien overdose but bringing on one trippy hallucination trip for Bernie. Wow, the movie packs a punch!
The mid-section of the film deals more with how he dodged crises and exposure in a few instances, but the family story is never far away. The remaining length shows us his trial and how the family dealt with it. Of course, his first born Mark didn’t deal at all. He hanged himself and that scenario is the second most powerful section of the movie. The story clearly focuses on the family angle. Perhaps that is one of the movie’s faults. It does not give the complete picture of how Madoff orchestrated and pulled off the scheme or even delved too far into the ramifications of how destructive his scheme was. It is clearly more about the family dynamic, which is okay but not the whole story by any stretch of the imagination. And while we are talking faults, there is one more small one. THE WIZARD OF LIES doesn’t really get into the head of Bernard Madoff and explain him very well even despite Henriques’ probing. But, perhaps that is not a fault of the film but says more about the kind of man Madoff is – a sociopath.
Don’t expect a complete understanding of Bernard Madoff or the complete scope of his crime but do expect sterling performances from De Niro and the rest of this cast under the masterful direction from Barry Levinson.