Chasing Madoff offers an object lesson in how to turn a potentially rich documentary into a cheap bag of melodramatic tricks. Too bad, because as villains go it's hard to top Bernie Madoff, busted in 2008 for a multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme that victimized "tens of thousands" around the world.
Over on the other side of the ethical ledger, there's the ardent crusader who stood up to the bad guy, blowing his whistle loud and long. That the sound fell on deaf ears, that the financial cops ignored the biggest robber on the planet, even when presented with gift-wrapped evidence of his larceny, only adds to the moral complexity of the tale.
No doubt, this should be a great yarn. Here's how director Jeff Prosserman screws it up.
Save for a few short audio clips, the devil is absent from this account of his handiwork. A decade before his arrest, Madoff was a "mystery manager" running vast chunks of money on Wall Street. Well, in these frames at least, a mystery he remains. Not so with our crusader, Harry Markopolos. As early as 1997, then working at a Boston investment firm, Markopolos was asked by his boss to analyze Madoff's impressive success rate. The boss was envious. Checking the graphs, Markopolos was incredulous and came to an immediate conclusion: "You don't get straight lines in finance. This is a fraud." And an easy-to-spot fraud, the equivalent of a baseball hitter boasting a .900 average.
So the start is solid enough – this early epiphany is interesting. Acceptable too is Prosserman's decision to layer in post-scandal material to emphasize the repercussions of the crime – interviews with individual investors who lost their entire life savings, or C-SPAN footage of congressmen in high dudgeon berating the so-called regulators on the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Where things start to go awry is when he narrows the focus to Markopolos, following two narrative strains simultaneously.
The first is essential to the story, documenting Markopolos's metamorphosis from disbelieving analyst to obsessed crusader, taking his whistle directly to the SEC, then to the media. Occasionally a piece would be published, but always with the same result: "They didn't do anything." Madoff kept getting a pass. Why? The usual reason: "He had a lot of powerful people behind him." Indeed, the folks whose finances he managed included "half the royalty of Europe," not to mention others even shadier, the ones with "offshore, dirty money."
Alas, this leads directly to the second narrative and to the film's undoing: Markopolos's psychological state. Again and again, we hear, "I was terrified for my life," "I was living in fear," "I was going to take out Madoff before he took me out." No concrete evidence is given to justify these mortal fears, but that doesn't stop Prosserman from pulling out all the melodramatic stops. He stages re-enactments of Markopolos dropping in on his local sheriff for a gun permit, then a bulletproof vest; of Markopolos, his two young sons in the background, scanning the undercarriage of his car for a bomb; of Markopolos walking the same kids into the deep woods to lecture them on "predators and prey." Then, just in case we miss the point, he edits in sepia-toned glimpses of gangland slayings and thirties mobsters in flashy fedoras.
C'mon. It's like the channel suddenly changes, switching us away from a credible doc about a financial scandal straight into a particularly lame episode of The Untouchables. Consequently, whether warranted or not, the credibility gets generally damaged, and Prosserman's trashy style proves the enemy even of his solid content.
Such a waste of an absorbing subject. Waving around those pistols like in a B-western, Chasing Madoff ends up shooting itself in the foot.
- Directed by Jeff Prosserman
- Classification: G