THE TV-MOVIE “The Wizard of Lies”
WHEN | WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO
WHAT IT’S ABOUT In December 2008, Bernard Madoff (Robert De Niro) is frantically signing bonus checks. His fraudulent scheme is about to collapse, so no time to waste. But a family lawyer tells his sons to turn him in, which they do. Within hours, thousands of investors are ruined, but Madoff’s sons, Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andy (Nathan Darrow), and their spouses, Stephanie (Kristen Connolly) and Catherine (Lily Rabe), respectively, are destroyed. Madoff’s wife, Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer) endures.
Barry Levinson directed this made-for-HBO movie, based on Diana Henriques’ “The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.” Henriques also appears as herself, as a reporter for The New York Times, interviewing Madoff in prison.
MY SAY Almost everything in “The Wizard of Lies” succeeds. The acting is impeccable, the script taut and Levinson’s direction scalpel-sharp. There’s no ill-advised attempt to seek “meaning” or “moral,” and no “reconsideration” of events. De Niro and Pfeiffer inhabit these roles so fully that you forget they’re De Niro and Pfeiffer — no small feat considering their statures.
But the brute fact of the movie’s tragic story remains. It’s a terrible story, and worse, a familiar one. We know the beginning, middle and end. How one son committed suicide with his infant son in another room. How the other son died from cancer. How all those thousands of lives were ruined. How, try as we might, we still fail to find a deeper meaning in all of this. In an interview with a newspaper in his hometown of Baltimore, Levinson offered that “we don’t have to be totally sympathetic to the main character, but I think we have to be engaged by the monster.”
There is a third option however: You don’t have to watch the monster. As always, your call.
Like any first-rate biopic, “Wizard of Lies” is bound by the record, in this case Henriques’ exhaustive 2011 account.
The what, how and who are all here, and in Technicolor. The boiler room operation on the 17th floor, run by Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria) looks like a broom closet with computer screens. This is where the $50 billion disappeared. That infamous Madoff confidence trick — in which he refused to take any more money into his closed funds — is brilliantly choreographed during a scene at an investor party where a jazz ensemble softly plays and lulls the lambs just before slaughter. To the beat of a snare drum, Madoff effortlessly picks the pocket of one investor for $400 million. His Ponzi scheme would evaporate a few hours later — that $400 million with it.
The best scene also yields the best line. After a double suicide attempt from swallowing fistfuls of Ambien, both Madoffs wake up the next morning. As Ruth dryly observes, “Well, we’re still here.”
But what’s missing in “Wizard” is the why. Skipping past the superficial obvious reason — greed — “Wizard” then grapples with Madoff’s psyche, which offers no clues. ABC’s 2016 biopic tried to get around this with creative license, by having Richard Dreyfuss’ Madoff sneer at the world through interior dialogue.
But De Niro’s sphinx remains silent. “Do you think I’m a sociopath?” he asks Henriques in the last line of “Wizard.” Henriques says nothing. She doesn’t have to.
BOTTOM LINE Superior craftsmanship and the same old story.