There is a tense, gripping scene near the beginning of HBO’s The Wizard of Lies when Robert De Niro’s Bernie Madoff is getting ready to surrender himself to the FBI. Madoff has already played this scenario out in his head well in advance of the FBI’s arrival: he’ll let the agents in, tell his wife to call his lawyer, put his hands behind his back to be handcuffed and then proceed with the agents to their car. What Bernie didn’t count on was the agents ordering him to unlace his shoes, a common procedure done by law enforcement officials when booking people who’ve committed criminal offenses. We listen to the slow rapping and unraveling of the shoelaces as his wife Ruth (played by the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer) watches somberly from a hall doorway.
The scene is nerve-racking and is the first instance in the film where Bernie’s calculated empty apologies and blame deflections go awry, and the first real instance that Ruth realizes their lives have changed forever. From that point on, The Wizard of Lies gives us a haunting portrayal of the man responsible for the largest financial fraud in recent memory. But despite a talented cast, the film never manages to leap over the dilemma that would plague any dramatic film or TV adaptation of the Madoff story: how can one possibly depict Madoff as a human, when he is so very much a monster.
The Wizard of Lies does its best trying to wrangle this conflict, first showing Madoff as a somewhat relatable guy, then more of an asshole when he’s talking down to waiters at a beach party, then relatable guy again, then annoyed curmudgeon after yelling at his granddaughter. The film asks us if Madoff is a sociopath, as we constantly see him spit out half-truths and sorry excuses on how his crime didn’t really impact his family at all, even though it crushed them and alienated them, or that his clients should share some of the blame to for trusting him. They’re valid and intriguing questions, but it feels like something is missing as the movie goes about, like there were extra scenes left on the cutting room floor that would have given us the deeper, darker look at Madoff we really wanted to see.
Another issue that any Madoff movie would face is depicting the true total pain and harm all of his victims experienced. The issue with detailing this is very similar to the struggle of depicting the true horror and death caused by the Holocaust. Six million Jews were killed, but its difficult just to wrap your head around that specific number of 6 million, its hard for us to really grasp just how much bigger 6 million is than 5 million, or if it’s really that much smaller than say 7 million. It’s also similar to the difficulty scientists and educators face when depicting how big the universe is. We can see charts and diagrams and animations depicting just how small we are, but in the end we can’t ever really wrap our head around how mind-numbingly big our galaxy and everything else is, we just settle on knowing that the universe is in fact very, very big. When the numbers become bigger, their impact becomes smaller.
For The Wizard of Lies, they detail the victims of the Madoff fraud through court testimonies, late-night phone calls to Madoff’s home, and a grid of victims’ faces that eventually fade into a larger portrait of Madoff. In the scenes where a New York Times reporter is questioning Madoff, we get accounts of people who committed suicide and found out by fax machine that their financial lives were ruined. All of these methods of portraying the victims are certainly valiant ones, and none of them are wrong in any way, but none of them feel quite right.
But then again, its important to consider that The Wizard of Lies not only refers to Madoff’s Ponzi scheme but how he lied about everything to everyone, including himself. When his sons question him about the nature of the business, Madoff swats their inquisitive nature away with angst. When his wife prods about their future now that the crime has been revealed, Madoff gives her half-truths and non-answers. And in the film’s final moment, the last piece of dialogue is a question, and we’re left with Madoff never answering.
The Wizard of Lies isn’t all bad though. It’s worth watching solely for Michelle Pfeiffer, particularly her scenes when she’s in the elevator with apartment neighbors and when she’s pleading with her hair stylist to keep her on as a client. Pfeiffer’s performance, while extraordinary, is probably helped by how Ruth Madoff is arguably the closest thing to an innocent bystander in the whole thing. It’s fascinating to watch her character in the wake of their empire crumbling, how she stands by her husband’s side for a great deal and tries desperately to keep her family and relationships in tact, but too realizes that everything has changed and she will have to sacrifice Madoff to continue on with her life.
It isn’t an enjoyable movie-watching experience, in all honesty the whole experience is a bit frustrating. But maybe that’s the whole point, that there’s nothing that this film could give us that would give us relief or enjoyment or truth, just as there’s really nothing Madoff could say or do in real life that would give his victims closure or anything resembling catharsis. It’s the same problem you face when making a film about Muhammad Ali: the boxer is so complex and larger-than-life that even with a 5-hour runtime, we’d still feel like we never got a strong grasp of who he was, just like we don’t have a strong idea of who Madoff is, since he never really shared the whole truth with anyone. With The Wizard of Lies, I’m not sure if there’s anything more that could be added to have made it any better. But it definitely feels like it wasn’t enough.