The first thing we see in The Wizard of Lies is razor wire. Cold, dangerous, sinister razor wire. It's a view of a prison wall. The production isn't, mind you, about prison at all.
The Wizard of Lies (Saturday, HBO, 8 p.m.) is about the notorious Bernie Madoff, the man responsible for the largest financial fraud in American history. And it is not a conventional drama about such a figure. The film, made by Barry Levinson (written by Sam Levinson, Sam Baum and John Burnham Schwartz, loosely adapting the book by reporter Diana B. Henriques), coolly examines what might be the makeup of Madoff's psychology. Might be, that is. This is a mystery.
As such, it doesn't tell the whole story one expects. There is no rags-to-fake-riches saga. It doesn't follow a conventional arc of presenting Madoff as a rogue who went too far, duped too many people and got caught. Instead, it just lingers on this unknowable man. It says there is no easy explanation for Madoff and how he got away with his massive fraud. It says you should park your easy assumptions somewhere else. It suggests he's a unique kind of monster. As such, it is a terrific and frightening film.
Robert De Niro plays Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer plays his wife, Ruth. One can see the attraction of the piece for the stars.
It's a serious acting challenge. Much of the movie is about the immediate aftermath of Madoff's fall and disgrace in 2008. And De Niro plays Madoff as a stone-faced, cunning sociopath. We get a lot of close-ups of Madoff's face in every possible circumstance, from lavish parties he threw to the arrest by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to his in-prison interviews with Henriques. Each time you're obliged to study the face and consider what is going on inside that head.
The clues to what motivates and drives him come occasionally but not emphatically. He doesn't seem to like his children at all. He's often icily contemptuous of them. He is, one imagines, secretly scathing in his view of them. The pampered fools, they still don't understand that his business is a fraud. Asked about Ruth, after he's arrested, he says very calmly: "She'll be fine." He says that about everyone in his orbit. He couldn't care less.
"It seems to me like you're refusing to recognize the hazard you created for your family," Henriques says, struggling to get Madoff to emit emotion. He replies: "It'll kill me for the rest of my life." But it is said without passion or the remotest hint of remorse. It's just something to say, to fill in the blank space where he should answer.
What does emerge gradually is the obvious precariousness of his business scheme. Hank Azaria plays Frank, long-time business partner of Madoff and, it seems, the guy who actually got his hands dirty concocting the fakery that sustained the Madoff empire. Frank doesn't have a college degree, let alone proficiency in stocks and trading. He's crude, coarse and arrogant. And yet Madoff told people that, if anything happened to him, then Frank could take care of everything. Anyone who encountered Frank would be very dubious about that. And then there were the investors, who were greedy and willfully blind to the lack of substance in what Madoff said about making their money grow. And the authorities, who never quite looked deeply enough into Madoff's business practices.
There is one telling scene, early on, in which the FBI and SEC confront Madoff's sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola,) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow). They ask how the sons could possibly be ignorant of the Ponzi scheme their father was running. They just were, the sons claim. Eventually, Mark tries to turn the table, enraged. He asks how the FBI and the SEC, which had more access to their father's business than the family did, could have been ignorant. The son lists off, sarcastically, all the honours, titles and awards bestowed upon Bernie Madoff by the Wall Street establishment. And all of the angry sarcasm amounts to a very fair question.
Mostly, however, Wizard of Lies keeps its cool focus on the inscrutability of De Niro as Madoff. The camera's staring at him, trying to figure out what he thinks and feels. Madoff often says little and when he does, he's shockingly direct. "It's all one big lie," he says to his family when he confesses. "It's one big Ponzi scheme." That's it. There is not even a self-conscious shrug. To the FBI he says, simply, "There is no innocent explanation." And the FBI agents tell others, with amazement, "He's so matter-of-fact about it."
At the end, there is a payoff of sorts for the viewer. That is, some cryptic revelations about what Bernie Madoff is. And yet he remains unknowable, really. Unless one concludes, reasonably, that what's inside his head amounts to cold, sinister razor wire.