Something about the Bernard Madoff investment scandal, which occurred almost nine years ago alongside the near-unraveling of the American economy, is still too big to fathom or, at least, remains too raw to produce a satisfying TV movie.
Now we have two attempts to compare and contrast: Barry Levinson’s coldly clinical “The Wizard of Lies” (airing Saturday on HBO) and ABC’s “Madoff” (a two-night miniseries that aired in early 2016). In both, it seems that the writers, directors and even two highly skilled actors — Robert De Niro plays Madoff in this new film; Richard Dreyfuss played him in the miniseries — are never quite sure what kind of story they want to tell about all that lost money.
Is it a cautionary tale about easy wealth? Is it the dramatic equivalent of historical newsreel? Is it pure schadenfreude? Is the misery just too irresistible? Is it a way to sell off a bunch of copies of journalists’ books about Madoff?
That last theory may hold a little water: ABC’s version was based on a book by Brian Ross, a reporter for the network’s news division; HBO’s is based on New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques’s 2011 book. Henriques, the first journalist to visit Madoff in the prison where he is serving a 150-year sentence, plays herself in the movie. Although she does a fairly good job of it (imagine the pressure of making one’s acting debut opposite De Niro), the decision by “Wizard’s” three credited screenwriters to open the film with the prison interview (and essentially tell the whole saga as a progressive flashback) feels like a structural mistake that can’t be repaired.
The next scene jumps straight to the moment when Madoff confesses to his wife, Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer), and sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow) that the massive investment firm that bears the family name (and employs the sons) has been a Ponzi scheme all along. (“What’s a Ponzi scheme?” asks Ruth.) Fifty billion dollars has vanished — money from clients and others firms, most of whom clamored for Madoff’s attention and begged to get in on his fabulous record of returns.
For my money, that scene feels drastically underplayed (even if the Madoff family’s subdued reactions are an accurate recounting) and comes way too soon, before the actors have been given a chance to show what they can do to lift this story higher than its news clips and browser search history. “The Wizard of Lies” is determined to play things straight and footnoted, which would be fine if viewers had tuned in for a documentary.
When what we’re really here for is De Niro, Pfeiffer and some drama. Things don’t really get good until a flashback to a company dinner Madoff threw for his employees the summer before everything came tumbling down. De Niro, employing his usual interpretations on tight-lipped grimaces and indifferent shrugs, begins to shine when tasked with showing the cruel dismissiveness with which Bernie treated people, whether it’s the catering staff or his loyal sons.
Pfeiffer doesn’t get the sort of scenes that would match her talent, but she has her moments, especially during a scene on Christmas Eve where Ruth decides to end it all by downing all the Ambien she can find. Bernie decides to join her and the two head off to bed to wait for death while watching “Meet Me in St. Louis” on Turner Classic Movies. Ruth conks out, but, as Judy Garland sings, Bernie experiences a hokey series of hallucinations. In the morning, the Madoffs wake up and realize they simply have to go on living.
Not so for Mark Madoff, whose agitation grows as the vitriol and anger meant for Bernie turns on the rest of the family, as does the ongoing federal investigation. Mark committed suicide in 2010 and it’s at this horrifying nadir — and because of Nivola’s painfully perfect performance — that “Wizard of Lies” finally becomes the Greek tragedy it ought to have been all the way through.
The Wizard of Lies (135 minutes) airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO, with encores.