HBO’s latest movie, based off of the book written by Diana B. Henriques, brings us up close and personal with the infamous stockbroker, Bernie Madoff, who was responsible for defrauding his clients of almost $65 billion. Although no film adaptation can truly cover all of the unnerving details of Bernie’s life and villainy, The Wizard of Lies manages to provide us with an intimate and captivating view of the rise and fall of Bernie Madoff.
The film begins in 2010 when journalist Diana B. Henriques, who plays herself in the film, sits down with the notorious ponzi-schemer and begins the compelling process of uncovering all that is Bernie Madoff (Robert De Niro). The film then goes into a series of disordered flashbacks that slowly begin to unravel the story behind Bernie’s personal and professional deceit. We are first taken back to late 2008, where a cooly-tempered, placid Bernie sits his family down and says very candidly that his entire business is a fraud, all of his so-called investments were made up, and almost all of the money that had been given to him was gone.
Following the bombshell, Bernie’s sons, Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), decide to call the authorities in order to avoid being pegged as accomplices. Now a house divided, Bernie and his wife, Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer), are left deserted from their sons as the family starts to feel the harsh implications of the severity of Bernie’s crimes. As the investigation proceeds, it becomes a chaotic examination into how Madoff was able to keep up this charade for so long and more importantly, how did his family not know about it.
The Wizard of Lies then gives us a closer look into the lives of the Madoff clan pre-scandal, and the turbulent yet unconditional love they had for each other. We also get a glimpse into Bernie’s nature, his temperament, and his secrecy. As time goes by following the scandal, all we can do is watch as the Madoff family falls apart. Bernie begins to stand trial and pleads guilty to everything as he faces all of the family and friends who have lost everything because of his scam. He is sentenced to 150 years in prison, and the courtroom explodes into a round of applause.
Justice may have been served, but the ordeal is far from over. His investors still have lost everything, and Bernie’s family can’t escape the 24/7 scrutiny. Two years following his arrest, Bernie’s son Mark snaps under the pressure of his severe paranoia and depression and commits suicide. The film ends with a stoic and nonplussed Bernie calmly defending his actions and stating that it only ended because he simply got tired of doing it. He then asks Diana, “Do you think I’m a sociopath?” We never get Diana’s answer, but as soon as he asks the question, we start to see Bernie, himself, contemplate the thought and come to his own realization.
Going into this film, I was expecting to come out of it with a deeper understanding of Bernie Madoff, as well as an answer to the question, why did he do this? If these are your expectations as well, then you will end up being disappointed. Though the film does give us a good look into his life and personality, we are still left without any sense of resolution or justification. This may seem like a bad thing, but it is ultimately what makes this story so riveting.
One of the strongest elements of the film is its authentic portrayal of all sides of the story. The film does not favor or show prejudice to any one character or situation. It merely portrays the story from all sides. The Wizard of Lies shows Bernie and his family at their best and worst, and it also shows the tormenting effect that Bernie’s scam had on all those involved. This unbiased portrayal creates an openness for interpretation regarding the blurred and arbitrary line between the innocent and the guilty. This film has no clear-cut message or explicit lesson and, just as the public did during the ordeal in 2008, everyone will come to a different and equally argumentative conclusion.
Another powerful component of the film was its star-studded and convincing cast. Their renditions were strong enough to invoke a powerful reaction, but subtle enough to give the illusion of real-life authenticity. Michelle Pfeiffer’s frank and monotonous execution of Ruth Madoff was both accurate and engaging, as she embodied the confused yet devoted wife who tried her best to put her family first.
As always, Robert De Niro steals the show with his intensity and effortlessness. Granted, De Niro always seems to have a similar execution with all of his characters, but this execution proved to be exactly what the film needed to depict the complex yet reserved Mr. Madoff. He masters the difficult task of adding immense depth to his character, while still creating an air of mystery and unsettling blankness.
Overall, this well-shot, well-cast and well-written adaptation is as captivating as it is frustrating. Whether the The Wizard of Lies leaves you with a feeling of disgust, confusion, or understanding, the film undoubtedly combines honesty with entertainment to create a piece of gripping and classic storytelling.