Crude retelling of a huge fraud
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, Aug 26, 2011
There is more than one alarming injustice in "Chasing Madoff," the documentary about a whistleblower everyone ignored, to the detriment of retirement funds worldwide. Director Jeff Prosserman's retelling borders on reprehensible, as he attempts to heighten an already powerful tale with a parade of needless bells and whistles, from flashy camera work to melodramatic reenactments.
What a shame, because the story is truly astonishing.
Boston portfolio manager Harry Markopolos uncovered Bernard Madoff's multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme way back in 1999. It didn't take much digging or strenuous number crunching to see the mathematical impossibility of Madoff's returns, so Markopolos figured that bringing the scandal to light would be equally simple. Yet he spent the subsequent decade offering his proof to government officials, the Securities and Exchange Commission and major newspapers, and he was ignored time and again. Prosserman makes a compelling case that the widespread blindness wasn't mere cluelessness, so much as evidence that Madoff's tentacles reached just about every corner of every industry.
Interviews with Markopolos and the two men who aided his anti-Madoff crusade - Neil Chelo and Frank Casey - form the foundation of the movie, while a few victims offer devastating proof of Madoff's legacy. The documentary's reliance on prosaic visual metaphors is immediately apparent with an opening sequence of burning money falling from the sky, followed by the words "A true story, unfortunately." Meanwhile, the B-roll that accompanies interviews feels absurdly literal. When one interviewee compares Madoff's stock market returns to an impossible batting average, footage of a baseball game appears; talk of taking a cab is met with the image of a taxi driving down the street; and when Markopolos becomes increasingly fearful for his life, unrelated black-and-white photos of mob hit victims flash across the screen.
The remainder of the film's running time is eaten up by darkly lit and sinister dramatizations of the events, most of which feel unnecessary. Those minutes could be better spent in various other ways, including more interviews with victims, a deeper look at the history of Ponzi schemes (which the film briefly touches on, leaving the audience with more questions than answers) or a closer look at the film's villain. One of the most rousing moments of the movie is a snippet from an interview in which Madoff assures an audience how it's virtually impossible to violate SEC rules.
It's a jaw-dropping glimpse of defiance and villainy, and it proves that unadorned footage of real life can be more powerful than all the foreboding music and moody lighting in the world.
Contains glimpses of old photographs of mob hits.