The message is more interesting than the medium in this documentary about private-sector financial analysts who spent nearly a decade trying to get the government to shut down Wall Street con man Bernie Madoff, the mastermind of the biggest financial fraud in world history.
Madoff’s imaginary investments were so consistently profitable on paper that he attracted tens of billions of dollars in a global Ponzi scheme. As incredulous lead investigator Harry Markopolos puts it, “If [Madoff] were a professional baseball player, he would be hitting .964.”
Running the numbers revealed Madoff’s financial reports had no basis in reality. Markopolos reported his findings in May 2000 to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which ignored that tip and several others. And publications such as Forbes and the Wall Street Journal refused to print stories about Madoff’s transparently criminal scheme.
Chasing Madoff, directed and written by Jeff Prosserman, details Markopolos’ subsequent efforts to expose Madoff up to the 2008 financial-system crisis and beyond. The documentary’s simplest visual trick is its most effective. During black-background interview segments, pans to the left and right reveal the next person with something to say. This creates the flawless illusion that all of the principals were side-by-side at the same time, and that each always was ready with a pithy comment or anecdote. (Julian Van Mil is credited as the film’s “Director of Photography and Motion Graphics.”)
Less enjoyable are countless re-creations of everything from phone calls to cab rides to calculator number-crunchings. Even more awkward are several film-noir shadowed cluttered-desk scenes in which Markopolos theatrically frets and agonizes like a 1940s private eye. These elements make Chasing Madoff play more like a staged-looking 48 Hours Mystery than as just-the-facts-ma’am 60 Minutes journalism.
Chasing Madoff also spends too much time on a tangent about Markopolos’ fear of getting killed. There’s even a fictional scene in which an armed hitman breaks into the Markopolos home, followed by a gun flash from an upstairs window.
That time could have been used to present more real-world factual details that are conspicuous by their absence. An early scene showing Markopolos kneeling and crossing himself at a Catholic chapel seems to foreshadow a religious angle that never materializes. There is no mention of the fact that the Jewish Madoff victimized large numbers of Jewish charity, educational, institutional and private investors, even though his public shaming for doing so was widespread after his fall. We never get any indication of a potential whistleblower-type reward that may have been in store for Markopolos, and whether it may have played any part in his motivation. Also, it would have been appropriate to note that New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, who is described as never taking any apparent action to shut down Madoff, later turned out to have family money invested with the crook.
The most interesting genuine video clips come from an after-the-arrest Congressional hearing in which SEC officials are vilified for their years of inattention and inaction. New York Rep Gary Ackerman is brutally insulting to an array of smugly unrepentant bureaucrats, who seem coolly unconcerned about their dereliction of duty.
Described during its opening credits as “Unfortunately, A True Story,” Chasing Madoff is more timely than ever in the current tumultuous economic climate. It’s worth seeing if only for a reminder that investors should be highly skeptical of any deal that seems too good to be true.
This movie is released on Friday, August 26 2011