Over and over again in The Wizard of Lies, the director Barry Levinson pushes his camera as close as he can to Bernie Madoff’s face, searching for flickers of emotion. As played by Robert De Niro, Madoff is taciturn and even-tempered—at least, after he reveals his part in the largest financial fraud in American history. It’s this devastating sense of calm and acceptance that fascinates Levinson most in his exploration of Madoff’s life, which almost entirely focuses on his experiences after he admitted to running a decades-long Ponzi scheme in 2008 and was turned over to the police by his children. Surely, there has to be remorse or, at the very least, anger about how things fell apart?
In the end, Levinson finds very little at all—but that’s less unsatisfying than it sounds. This is not a film that offers a simple explanation for Madoff’s long-running fraud, nor is it one that strives to find some sympathetic angle on him, even in the wake of his conviction and the suicide of his son Mark. It’s a long, moody piece that seeks only to depict Madoff’s frustrating opaqueness and the destruction he left in his wake. The Wizard of Lies, which airs Saturday on HBO, doesn’t try to either understand or humanize Madoff, but all the same it manages to be an intimate, unsettling portrait of a borderline sociopath.
Levinson’s film is framed around a series of interviews Madoff conducted from prison with the New York Times reporter Diana B. Henriques. She plays herself (and, in a debut performance, acquits herself quite nicely considering she’s acting alongside De Niro) as gently needling Madoff, trying to learn both why he was motivated to lie about his ill-gotten gains, and why he thought his family would somehow be protected from scrutiny in the aftermath of his arrest.
In the end, Levinson (with screenwriters Sam Levinson, Sam Baum, and John Burnham Schwartz, adapting Henriques’s book) concludes that Madoff isn’t quite the calculating genius he thinks he is. His narcissism and grandiosity were empowered by decades of fraudulent success, enabled by the financial community’s willingness to turn a blind eye to the inexplicable consistency of his investment firm. In finally admitting defeat (as the stock market crashed in 2008 and people began to pull their money out of Madoff’s company faster than he could recruit new investors), Madoff figured his family would get the same soft treatment.
De Niro plays Madoff as almost willfully ignorant. As Henriques presses him on the pain of his wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), he assures her they’ll be fine. As she tries to get to the bottom of his motivations, he smirks and says, “I do enjoy sparring with you, Diana.” They aren’t sparring, she reminds him—Henriques is just trying to understand how someone’s conscience might have survived so many years of lying and such brazen theft of other people’s savings. Madoff’s defense amounts to a passing of the buck; he insists that he always told people not to put all of their savings with him, because “who knows” what might happen to the market. That implicit warning was enough, to him, even if it wasn’t to anyone else.
The Wizard of Lies is the second attempt to dramatize the Madoff saga after his 2008 arrest. The first was a 2016 ABC miniseries called Madoff, starring Richard Dreyfuss and Blythe Danner as the central couple. Though it was almost twice as long (running four hours), it lacked the psychological complexity of The Wizard of Lies, with Dreyfuss playing Madoff more as people might want to think of him—a quasi-huckster who used charm and chutzpah to win clients and build his empire. This approach worked in the miniseries’s early hours, but could not sustain the epically bleak Greek tragedy that is the end of the Madoff family saga (including Mark’s shocking suicide).
That miniseries (directed by Raymond De Felitta) was much more interested in the founding of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme and the mechanics of how it worked, especially his recruitment strategies for new investors and his ways around being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Levinson boils all that down to two respective flashbacks: one in which an investor hungrily asks Madoff how much it will take to get brought on as a client, and another in which an SEC investigator pesters him at his office. In both cases, Madoff succeeds by utterly stonewalling his opponent, though he could have easily been undone had either dug more deeply into his methodology.
While Madoff tried to credit that impunity to its protagonist’s guile and cunning, The Wizard of Lies sees a world in which Madoff’s quiet aggression was enough to let him get away with whatever he wanted. It’s a darker, but perhaps more honest outlook on an unregulated financial world that allowed crooks like Madoff to flourish. In every other flashback, viewers see Madoff out of the office, acting like a preening monarch in front of his family as he throws parties and dines at his sumptuous properties. He’s tetchy with the staff, flirty with other women, and generally disrespectful to his children—all of which appear to be fueled by both his own shortcomings and the quagmire he built his empire on top of.
“It seems to me like you’re refusing to recognize the hazard you created for your family,” Henriques says late in the film, trying to get Madoff to crack (from within his prison cell) on the consequences of his actions. “It’ll kill me for the rest of my life,” he replies blankly, but it’s tough to really believe him. As the final act of the film chronicles the “clawback” lawsuits that sought to recover the stolen funds from Madoff and family, and the public shaming that eventually drove his son to suicide, De Niro’s face remains impassive, and The Wizard of Lies’s brutal sense of judgment feels all the more apt.