“You want to know how to get people to trust you with their money? I’ll tell you right now. You present it as an exclusive thing, an elite club for the chosen few.”
Speaking at the start of Madoff, Bernie Madoff (Richard Dreyfuss) makes that sort of presentation, inviting you to feel as though he’s about to grant you exclusive access to how he put together the biggest Ponzi scheme in US history. Most viewers have heard of Madoff, remember that he stole billions of dollars from trusting investors whose number included celebrities like Steven Spielberg, and might even know that he’s currently in prison. ABC’s two-part movie doesn’t provide much new information, but it does make a seductive presentation.
That presentation is sometimes Madoff’s own. He narrates his background and his increasing anxieties about being caught, and you frequently see what he sees, in particular that his wife Ruth (Blythe Danner) and sons Mark (Tom Lipinski) and Andy (Danny Defarrari) are unaware of his deceits and shenanigans. (The sons’ knowledge, at least, remains a topic of some debate.) The miniseries goes some distance toward showing Bernie as a loving family man, sharing meals in a sunlit beachfront dining room, playing with adorable grandchildren, doting on Ruth and appearing to listen to her concerns.
You also see some of the case building against Madoff, primary in the form of an investigation mounted by securities trader Harry Markopolos (Frank Whaley), whose story is chronicled in the 2011 documentary Chasing Madoff. Harry stumbles onto the case, and then pursues it doggedly, assuming — as one might — that when he reveals what he’s found that journalists, traders, and the SEC will be interested, even alarmed. That they are not is part of the problem indicated in Madoff and articulated by Bernie, namely, that he’s the guy who got busted, but the entire Wall Street system is corrupt, a scheme by definition.
Harry’s story is subsidiary here, a narrative means to make you worry that Madoff’s under a gun, and will eventually be found out. That this process, over the course of two nights, makes him fret, makes him lie, makes him think out loud for us, creates a vague sort of psychological profile. His dad was humiliated when Bernie was a child, and he swore it would never happen to him. His wife loves him and believes him, but he cheats on her without much thought (he tells her, when he’s found out, that his mistress, Sheryl [Liz Larsen] is nothing like Ruth, and that he always thought of her when he was with Sheryl). He’s stunned when Ruth is upset by this.
It may be, although the miniseries doesn’t press the issue, that the Bernie presented here is so socially incapable, so emotionally damaged, that he can’t understand what he’s done wrong. When he turns on his sons, calling them “Tweedledum and Tweedledee”, insisting that everything he’s done has been to protect them, you know what he can’t know. His self-delusion parallels his thinking when it comes to money. Madoff’s system, keeping billions of dollars in a bank to pay off investors who want checks, is probably, he reasons, as safe or safer than Wall Street. And indeed, when the crash begins, he and his longtime confederate Frank DiPascali (Michael Rispoli) note that they’d love to be able to tell their investors that their money is actually safe, unlike everyone else’s.
But even for these observations of the broader financial services and wheelings and dealings context, the more compelling argument the miniseries makes might have to do with what we see and how we see it, how we buy into seductive presentations. Bernie Madoff, the phenomenon, is symptomatic of this, not a cause but an effect. Late in the proceedings, after he’s imprisoned, playing cards with fellow inmates in orange jumpsuits, he turns directly to the camera to explain to you what you’ve been watching.
“So when was it exactly when I became the poster boy for all Wall Street’s crimes”, he asks, standing and walking as he looks directly at you. It wasn’t the celebrities, it wasn’t the charities that he bilked, he goes on, it wasn’t even the French millionaire — René-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet — who killed himself in shame. It was, instead, a presentation. Specifically, it was a TV moment, a moment on camera that circulated all over the world, the moment when Madoff walked out of jail on bail, baseball cap on his head, and smirked. “The moment”, this Madoff tells you, “that the world decided to make me the 21st century icon of evil and greed, the monster of Wall Street was when I came home”. You look at it again, with Dreyfuss as Madoff, recalling the real Madoff as Madoff.
“There, right there”, Bernie says, “That smirk, that smirk seen around the world”. This miniseries doesn’t change that moment. But it does remind you of what you do trust, what you do believe, no matter what you may know or not know. And that’s the presentation.