From a grey jailhouse in North Carolina, Bernie Madoff (played by Robert De Niro), punches his wife’s cell phone number into a payphone, hoping desperately for a response. After days of failed attempts, Madoff continues to try, only to find that this time, the number has been disconnected. The world’s most notorious con man slumps back to his cell, and his desolation deepens, adding a new dimension to his punishment.
The Wizard of Lies, directed by Barry Levinson is a profound depiction of the pain and suffering caused by Bernie Madoff, a once billionaire investment fund manager who ran the biggest ponzi scheme in the history of the US. In the HBO special, Madoff’s unraveling is told accurately and painstakingly. Levinson chronicles Madoff’s demise, from the once untouchable chambers of his office in Manhattan’s Lipstick building, to the dark moments in his study when he finally opened up to his sons about the immensity of his lie. The audience gets to be a fly on the wall, witnessing moments from Bernie’s arrest, to the impoundment of his vast estate (four homes, gold, china, even his coffee table and boxers).
Critics of the film have argued that the film did a poor job painting a picture of what went into the scheme, how secretive Madoff really was, and how complex his lie was. Though that may be the case, the real sensation of this film is in conveying the suffering of the Madoff, family, his victims, and even Bernie himself.
At one point during the film, a montage flashes across the screen in black and white, telling the stories of the victims who were most devastated. One victim found out that the millions she had invested into a feeder fund had been lost to Madoff’s scheme. Another man in a retirement home found out that 95% of his wealth had been lost to Madoff after his son called him to sadden him the news. A French investor, so distraught from the news slits his wrists over a trashcan, ending his life as a result of the loss of his fortune. The frame then expands, voices race, and Madoff’s glowering face covers the screen, constructed of the thousands of tiny faces of his victims. Viewers can feel the pain of hundreds of thousands of individuals play out right on their own screens.
Perhaps the most heart breaking loss in the scheme was a result of the damage done to his family. Facing potential punishment for being accessories to the crime, Madoff’s son’s turn him in swiftly after he opens up to them about his lies (that was the last time he saw them). Madoff’s wife suffers abuse from reporters, and excommunication from friends, and was unable to even get her hair colored at a spa she frequented. “I don’t know what I’m going to do…”, Ruth Madoff reflected, when she considered that the man she spent 50 years with would no longer be by her side.
Madoff’s sons faced turbulence in their marriages as reporters ruthlessly gathered outside of their homes, trying to force their way into the personal lives of those caught in the cross fire of Madoff’s madness.
The greatest tragedy portrayed in the film was the darkness that descended upon Mark Madoff. Having looked up to his father for the whole of his life, Mark was shattered by the revelations. Just as jarring, however, was the strain he faced in his personal life. Reporters chased he and his wife down sidewalks, once even forcing him to abandon his baby’s stroller in the middle of the street, and slip behind window in a coffee shop.
Mark enters a depression that he can never escape. He spends hours googling articles about himself, monitoring what the public thinks about his involvement in the case. He stays up phoning his brother, who has ceased to return his calls. Night turns into day as Mark, too paranoid to go outside stands by the window, flicking the shades up and down.
Mark’s narrative reaches its climax when he sends a goodbye message to his wife, and hangs himself with a dog collar in his apartment, just off of the room where his baby boy slept. The only note he left was to his father, and read “Fuck you, Bernie.” He was 46 years old.
Maybe the greatest sufferer of all in the tragic story is Madoff himself. Bernie Madoff is now the ultimate poster child of anti-greed and Anti Wall-Street. Armed only with his conscience, he must endure every second of what he survives of his 150-year sentence, pondering the collateral damage to lives he caused, the suicides, the misery, and each and every other thing that was the consequence of his greed. One telling scene in the movie depicts Madoff hallucinating after he and his wife try to commit suicide by swallowing a glass full of Ambien. He hears his granddaughter yell “pop-pop” down the hall, only to find reporters and flashing lights. “Have you no shame?” They demand. A once guru of money learns that hard way that money is a great servant, but a terrible master.
The end of the film witnesses Madoff sitting in his interview with Diane Henriques, the author of the original tell all. Surrounded by bare and grey walls, wearing his prison issues garb, he looks searchingly into her eyes, and asks her “Do you think I’m a sociopath”?”