[25 August 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Nothing about this case was ever believable. It was always the twilight zone in the Madoff case, because every time you saw something, it never made sense.” Set against an abstracting black background and addressing the camera, Harry Markopolos looks like he’s had experience in the twilight zone. But for him, as he tells it, Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was immediately identifiable as such. When presented with Madoff’s proposal, investment officer Markopolos told his boss at Rampart Investment Management, Frank Casey, not to believe it: “This was,” he says now, “the biggest fraud ever.”
Now, as they’re interviewed in Chasing Madoff, it’s plain that Markopolos was right. But at the time, in the early 2000s, they had trouble getting other people to see it. As Rampart was in the same money managing business as Madoff, Casey was initially concerned with finding a way to compete, a strategy to lure clients with attractive returns on their investments. Of course, that was impossible, as Markopolos asserts more than once here. Even when he did come up with an idea, with good returns, he was advised it was too risky. Still, he says, it was nothing like Madoff’s strategy. “He’s a crook,” he imagines telling those “fools” who objected to his proposal. “I’m legit.”
But being a crook, then as now, apparently, is not a deal-breaker on Wall Street. In fact, as recent history reveals, Madoff was more typical of systemic abuses than deviant. As the financial industry headed toward 2008’s near-catastrophe, the crooks kept making money. And as much as Markopolos and Casey, along with a third colleague at Rampart, Neil Chelo, and journalist Michael Ocrant, worked to expose Madoff, their efforts were repeatedly rebuffed. More specifically, they were ignored. Still, their efforts when on for years, as Markopolos, the designated point person, the whistleblower with his name on the papers, went again and again to the SEC with evidence that Madoff was stealing from people.
Based on Markopolos’ book, No One Would Listen, Chasing Madoff makes no bones about its point of view. More like a first-person detective story than a conventionally “objective” documentary, it presents Markopolos as a kind of seer, able to read accurately what was in front of him and willing to speak out about it. As Markopolos presents his findings, he’s supported on either side, literally, by Casey and Chelo, as the camera swiftly pans from each to the other, all set against the same black screen. The interviews appear to match on a kind of action, as the men not only narrate a coherent story, but also finish or bolster one another’s thoughts.
These thoughts are further buttressed by interviews with Madoff’s victims, identified here by their Madoff numbered accounts. Angry and grieving, their personal stories are similar, but each provides a stricken face for the effects of Madoff’s recklessness, and more to this film’s point, systemic corruption. One woman expresses the fury felt by so many, that Madoff had a “green light” from the agencies who were supposed to monitor such activities. “They said it’s safe,” she laments, and she had no way of knowing otherwise.
Understandably, the film doesn’t interview investors who might now claim to have had some sense of what was afoot. If some remember being impressed by Madoff’s companies’ extraordinary performance, they don’t now admit they had an inkling that something was wrong. (Casey does describe his friendship with Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet, the investor and investment solicitor with Madoff who killed himself when the case finally broke.) This speaks—however silently—to the film’s primary argument, that Madoff had help in keeping the scheme afloat for so many years, that Markopolos’ decade’s worth of whistleblowing was repressed by people who knew something, and that the huge-scale investors, those who made millions and billions, had to know what was going on.
As Chasing Madoff suggests, the system depends on silence, or at least on people saying a lot of nothing when they do speak, Just so, Madoff appears occasionally in a TV Interview. His image framed by an old-style TV set, he recedes into a depthless screen as he advises, “For the most part, you can ignore all of that stuff. If you’re investing for your retirement or whatever, you don’t have to get involved in all of these insane moves that occur in the marketplace. It’s unfortunate for me that I have to deal with this every day.”
Or not. For years, it seems he didn’t deal with any of it, only kept raising money from richer and richer Peters to pay a series of Pauls. The film doesn’t show how this works so much as it offers up some creative illustration, including sepia-toned footage of horse races and men on Wall Street from the 1920s and ‘30s, implying that the system is less different now than it is expanded and exacerbated. The amounts of money being made and lost are exponentially larger now, but the financial industry is premised on a majority of investors paying no attention to daily moves on the Street.
That doesn’t mean that everyone is so willfully or accidentally ignorant. And, as Markopolos phrases it, having knowledge and being known can also be costly. He describes the emotional tolls of his position as self-identified whistleblower. As he and his wife were having children and building a life in the suburbs (indicated by shots of his twins getting off a school bus, as well as a house with a picket fence), they were also convinced that he was in mortal danger, and came up with plans, in case he met an untimely end. He made sure that Casey and Chelo had all the information he gathered, says Markopolos. If he or his wife were killed, he says, “That was bad for us, but Frank and Neil could go forward to the authorities and this thing is pretty compelling: ‘Hey, Harry died of acute lead poisoning of the high speed multiple entry wounds variety.’” Pretty compelling, yes, not to mention sensationally rendered in the film’s images of Markopolos, strikingly shadowed and cocking a rifle again and again.
An interview with police sergeant Harry Bates, indicates that he was also concerned when Markopolos showed up at the station one day, looking “white as a ghost.” Gates says he offered him a bulletproof vest, and in the film they reenact the scene where Harry tries it on, the camera low and the ceiling looming over them. Military veteran Markopolos testifies, “There are three things that you have to do to survive on the battlefield, shoot, move, and communicate.” He looks stiff as he pats the vest: “The thing I was worried about was the moving. This thing was gonna prevent me from moving.” And so, Bates recalls as the music turns ominous and the shadows lengthen, “I didn’t want him to leave here without any protection, but it was his choice.”
Yes, it’s dramatic, but not even so dramatic as the story’s well-known semi-conclusion, when at last the House Financial Services Committee holds hearings, and Representative Gary Ackerman berates SEC officials for seeming so unconscionably stupid and deliberately slow. Markopolos’ righteously irate testimony is set in direct contrast to those officials’ stammering non-statements and averted gazes.
As extravagant as Chasing Madoff can seem at times, as preposterous as its aesthetic choices might be, these serve to underline the outrageousness of the $50 billion scheme and its many layers of cover-ups, over so many years. Madoff is not anomalous. He’s only more of the same.