Robert De Niro in “The Wizard of Lies.” (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

When the Bernie Madoff scandal broke in mid-December 2008, the housing bubble had burst and the economy was in freefall, closing the year on a four-mouth stretch in which 2.4 million people lost their jobs — and the hemorrhaging wasn’t nearly over yet. At the time, the average American couldn’t make sense of terms such as “credit default swaps” and “collateralized debt obligations,” and not only was Wall Street not paying for its recklessness, it needed a bailout from taxpayers to stanch the bleeding.

For running the biggest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, Madoff finally offered a human face at which to direct that inchoate anger. Here was a man who defrauded thousands of investors on a scale of nearly $65 billion, including Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who lost $15.1 million in foundation money on top of the life savings he and his wife had accumulated. For a time, Madoff was, perhaps, the most hated man in America, in part because the scale of his crime was so grotesque and wide-reaching, and in part because he came to represent Wall Street at its most depraved. His sins were both specific and symbolic.

So how does a filmmaker set about creating a man out of a monster? How do you find the human qualities of a shameless con artist without minimizing the wretchedness of his deeds? For Barry Levinson, director of the new biopic “The Wizard of Lies,” which will premiere Saturday night on HBO, humanizing Madoff wasn’t the goal so much as coming to grips with his actions and their consequences, particularly for his family, which reached Shakespearean proportions. After all, it was his sons, Andrew and Mark, who alerted federal authorities of the scheme, but were themselves so heavily scorned that Mark committed suicide precisely two years after his father’s arrest.

“You’re never going to solve the question of what makes [Madoff] tick,” says Levinson, whose three-decade-plus career includes the films “Diner,” “Rain Man” and “Wag the Dog.” “Looking at his family, I was reminded somewhat of the Arthur Miller play ‘All My Sons,’ which basically was about a man who ultimately destroys his family with his lies and greed. You see how he functions with his wife and children, and you see a con man like you maybe haven’t quite seen before. Our vision of a con man isn’t a slick-talking guy who’s trying to win you over with a smile and good spiel. He was this guy who was reluctant to have you join” his fund.


Robert De Niro and director Barry Levinson on the set of “The Wizard of Lies.” (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

No one understands Madoff’s profile better than Diana B. Henriques, who filed dozens of stories on Madoff for the New York Times and wrote the book on which Levinson’s film is based. She also appears as herself in the jailhouse interview scenes that frame the story, making her acting debut across a thin metal table from Robert De Niro as Madoff, the ultimate example of getting thrown into the deep end.

Her first story on Madoff, written with Zachery Kouwe, began, “On Wall Street, his name is legendary,” registering the shock of such a highly respected trader, who had served as the non-executive chairman of NASDAQ for three terms, running a scam of this magnitude. Now he’s certain to spend the rest of his life in prison, where he’s serving a 150-year sentence. The more time Henriques spent with him, the more she understood him as a contradictory figure.

“He lies like the rest of us breathe,” Henriques says. “He became, to me, increasingly less convincing in his expressions of remorse. There’s a line in the film where he says the fact that he could have kept his world so compartmentalized — his fraud in one box, his business in another — really concerned him. He was able to live this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde life. He was this genuine Wall Street statesman, the real Dr. Jekyll, and he was also this amoral, ice-water-veined con man who sold without flinching and who faced down near-exposure time and again, bluffing his way through it all.”

Levinson and Henriques both strongly reject the notion that investors and Madoff’s family were willfully blind to his deception because the returns were so consistently good. On the contrary, the art of the scam was Madoff’s discipline in frequently logging smaller returns than other funds, rather than posting outrageous gains.

“If you wanted to be somewhat conservative and make money,” Levinson says, “he would be the place to go.” Henriques recalls the words of fraud analyst Pat Huddleston, who “responded in one of his talks by saying, ‘If it sounds too good to be true, you’re dealing with an amateur.’ ”


Michelle Pfeiffer plays Madoff’s wife, Ruth, in “The Wizard of Lies,” starring Robert De Niro. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Where Madoff miscalculated severely, though, is what might happen if he got caught. It’s here that “The Wizard of Lies” morphs into family tragedy, as his sons cut themselves off from him, and his wife, Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer), reckons with the dark secrets of a man who has taken care of her since she was a teenager. Henriques thinks he had reason to believe his punishment wouldn’t be so severe, simply based on the precedent set by other Wall Street crimes. The timing is what made the difference.

“He was rational to expect he would serve some time in jail but generally be graded along the usual curve for white-collar criminals,” Henriques says. “It wasn’t unreasonable to expect that. Nor was it unreasonable to expect that his family would be left alone. I can’t remember a case where the members of a con artist’s family became the social pariahs that the Madoff family became. I think he was blindsided by the outrage that he had caused. I think, to some extent, it baffled him a bit.”

“There always has to be some level of denial,” says Levinson, who, incidentally, is being honored Thursday by the Washington Jewish Film Festival at a screening of his “Liberty Heights.” “I think what makes him interesting in a rather sick fashion is that this guy kept doing it and believed he could have kept doing it if not for events outside his control.” The fraud “didn’t collapse because of what he did wrong within his Ponzi scheme. It was the American economy that collapsed.”

In the end, “The Wizard of Lies” paints Madoff as a man who faces the consequences of his actions without accepting responsibility for them. The trick of De Niro’s performance is to register the pain of his son’s suicide and his estrangement from his family, while stopping conspicuously short of contrition. Anger and defiance come more naturally to the character than empathy.

“He’ll make a comment like, ‘You know, people are greedy,’ ” Levinson says. “So he obviously wants to shift some of the blame to the people. He doesn’t quite accept the fact that [his investors] were, in fact, victims, and he’s totally responsible.”

“Always remember that he’s a con man,” Henriques says. Even when all the money is gone.