This HBO TV drama (which premiered on May 20, 2017) chronicles the infamous Wall Street meltdown of financier Bernie Madoff’s $64 billion dollar Ponzi scheme, perhaps the largest financial fraud in US history. Starring Robert de Niro as Madoff and Michelle Pfeiffer as his wife Ruth, The Wizard of Lies (directed by Barry Levinson) is based on the book by well-known financial journalist Diana B. Henriques.
How did this man get away with such massive fraud for so many years? The Wizard of Lies raises this question as a Shakespearean tragedy, a family saga in which the volatile patriarch father manipulates one son while another son desperately yearns for his approval. This all takes place while Madoff is building a financial empire on smoke and mirrors. In 2008 Madoff was finally arrested.
The Wizard of Lies opens with Madoff already incarcerated and being interviewed by a reporter (Henriques plays herself.) In a series of flashbacks we see Madoff wine and dine extremely wealthy investors. In a cycle of increasingly desperate and deceptive maneuvers, Madoff promises unrealistically steady profits, continuing his Ponzi scheme for years: pitching to family, friends, charitable institutions, whomever can be the next gullible investor. But profits cannot be sustained.
One of his sons, overwhelmed by his father’s fraud and his part in contributing to it, commits suicide when the investigation by the SEC finally gains momentum. (Madoff was a former NASDAQ chairman and therefore, considered by many as beyond reproach.) The remaining son dies before his father’s indictment. In the end Madoff is a devastated old man serving a prison sentence of 150 years, with no wife (Ruth has divorced him), no sons, no visitors, but still clinging to the belief he has committed no crime.
Many defrauded clients remain nameless and faceless while some of his more desperate victims committed suicide. Providing some insights into the inner circle of the extremely wealthy, The Wizard of Lies is first and foremost a family saga of tragedy and betrayal. In the course of decades of lies and secrets, we wonder if it were greed that blinded family and friends to believe that their lives were worthy of such excess. What would we do if given steady profits over many years? Why would we question our good fortune? Why would we ask if the steady positive returns were too good to be true? These questions are left for us to reflect upon.
The Wizard of Lies features a strong cast of seasoned actors that give their best on screen, particularly De Niro and Pfeiffer. De NIro plays Madoff as a deeply delusional sociopath who masterminds one of the largest Ponzi schemes of the century while denying his own criminal behavior.
The ending is satisfying for those wanting to see karma function as it should.
Note: To date about 70% of the money Bernie Madoff swindled has been recovered.